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Georgian Opposition Demands PM Resign After Alleged Call With Billionaire's Son

European Council President Charles Michel (left) last week called on Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili (right) and the country's political parties to engage in dialogue to defuse the "worsening crisis."

TBILISI -- Opposition parties have called for Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili to step down amid fresh allegations he is beholden to the ruling party's billionaire founder.

TV Pirveli, an opposition station, on March 7 published an alleged audio recording of Bera Ivanishvili, the son of Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, demanding Gharibashvili punish his critics on social media.

Some of the critics later apologized, reportedly under pressure from the billionaire's former bodyguards, including Anzor Chubinidze, who is now the chief of Georgia's special service for state guards.

A member of Georgian Dream dismissed the recording as a fake, saying it was compiled from various recordings over the years.

The publication of the alleged recording comes amid an intensifying political crisis sparked by last year's general elections and exacerbated by the recent arrest of a top opposition leader.

Georgia's opposition parties have refused to enter the new parliament to protest what they call the rigging of the October 31 parliamentary elections.

The crisis deepened after a court ruled last month to send Nika Melia, the leader of the United National Movement (ENM) party, to pretrial detention after he refused to pay an increased bail fee in a case denounced by the opposition as a political witch-hunt.

Melia's arrest on February 23, along with several opposition activists, has sparked mass anti-government protests in Tbilisi demanding their release and snap parliamentary elections.

Melia is accused of organizing "mass violence" during 2019 anti-government protests, a charge he rejects as politically motivated. The ruling Georgian Dream party denies that.

The 41-year-old politician faces up to nine years behind bars if convicted.

During a visit to Georgia on March 1, European Council President Charles Michel called on the country's political parties to engage in dialogue to defuse the "worsening crisis."