TBILISI -- Georgia’s ruling party has nominated Irakli Gharibashvili to take over as prime minister hours after Giorgi Gakharia handed in his resignation following a court ruling that ordered the arrest of the head of the Caucasus country's main opposition force.
The governing Georgia Dream party named the Paris-educated Gharibashvili, 39, who was serving as defense minister in Gakharia's cabinet before the prime minister stepped down on February 18.
Gharibashvili’s appointment needs to be confirmed by parliament, which is boycotted by the opposition.
Speaking "on behalf of all opposition parties," Nika Melia, chairman of the opposition United National Movement (ENM), said government representatives should "sit at the negotiating table…and start negotiations on new early elections."
The developments come a day after a Tbilisi court granted a prosecution request to place Melia in custody in a case denounced by the opposition as a political witch-hunt.
The court ruling came amid a political crisis in Georgia that followed parliamentary elections in October that independent monitors say were marred by irregularities. All the opposition parties are boycotting parliament, refusing to assume their mandates.
Gakharia announced he was resigning during a televised address in Tbilisi because of disagreements within his own team over the decision to arrest Melia.
"I made the decision to leave my post. Of course, I believe and want to believe that this step will help reduce polarization in the political space of our country, because I am convinced that polarization and confrontation between us is the greatest risk for the future of our country, its economic development, and overcoming all types of crises," he said.
Gakharia warned that Melia's arrest could lead to the further escalation of the political crisis and threaten the well-being of the country’s citizens.
"Unfortunately, I could not reach a consensus with my team on this issue. I decided to resign," he said.
Following Gakharia’s resignation, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying they had temporarily postponed detaining Melia, who is accused of organizing "mass violence" during 2019 anti-government protests, a charge he rejects as politically motivated.
The 41-year-old politician faces up to nine years behind bars if convicted.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi said it "appreciates the restraint shown by the authorities and the opposition in responding to the events surrounding the Melia case."
"It is imperative that all those involved commit to de-escalating the current tensions so that a way forward can be agreed upon," it added.
Gharibashvili was a political unknown before former Prime Minister and billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili named him interior minister in October 2012. The move came after Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party routed supporters of former President Mikheil Saakashvili.
In November 2013, Gharibashvili became the youngest head of government in Europe when he was appointed prime minister, a post he held until December 2015, when he stepped down amid waning support for the Georgian Dream party.
On February 16, parliament voted to suspend Melia's immunity from prosecution, paving the way for his pretrial detention.
The prosecution's motion followed his refusal to pay an increased bail fee of 40,000 laris ($12,000). The opposition leader initially posted bail in 2019 but the amount was increased after he publicly removed his electronic-monitoring bracelet during a postelection rally in November 2020.