A raft of new Supreme Court appointments in Georgia has seemingly cemented the ruling parties' influence within a key institution and sharpened bitter political divides in one of the ex-Soviet region's most robust democracies.
In a turbulent session interrupted by a rancid chemical spill and with police keeping protesters at bay outside, lawmakers from the increasingly unpopular governing coalition voted on December 12 to grant lifetime tenure to 14 new appointees to a depleted court.
The scale of the judicial picks, and lingering questions surrounding their qualifications, feed fears about a dangerous consolidation of power in the hands of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party.
"I'm not shocked, but I am disappointed that once again parliament did not take into consideration the opinion of the people," Nazibrola Janezashvili, who is on the deeply divided High Council of Justice that made the nominations in its oversight role of Georgia's judiciary, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service after the vote.
Critics accuse Ivanishvili and his allies of reversing hard-fought democratic gains, usurping the levers of government, and unfairly punishing political opponents and critical media outlets in the former Soviet republic.
They say Georgian Dream is charging ahead with a take-no-prisoners strategy that threatens the country's pro-Western path and leaves little room for political compromise.
The Supreme Court appointments appeared to serve as a rebuff of recent warnings by the Venice Commission, which encourages democratic best practices among Council of Europe members, and other international bodies.
The Venice Commission recommended in an "urgent opinion" in April aimed at ensuring that Georgia's Supreme Court "enjoys the public trust and respect it deserves in the long run" that parliament appoint as few new justices as "absolutely necessary."
The Supreme Court -- which should comprise 28 judges under a year-old constitution -- has for months operated with just eight members.
The Venice Commission suggested that half of the remaining Supreme Court seats be left empty until after the national elections that should be held by October 2020.
Growing Public Anger
Political crisis has been brewing in Georgia since the adoption of sweeping constitutional changes two years ago -- in voting that was boycotted by the opposition -- that included a system of full proportional representation starting in 2024.
Anti-government protests turned violent last summer, when police used rubber bullets against a crowd outside parliament after a perceived slight involving a visiting Russian lawmaker.
A Supreme Court ruling that nullified the ownership of a popular opposition TV station, Rustavi-2, prompted warnings of Georgian Dream's tightening grip on public opinion ahead of the next elections.
Public anger boiled over again last month in Tbilisi after lawmakers backtracked on a pledge that followed the June violence to move forward the proportional representation to the 2020 elections, sparking sit-ins outside parliament that have endured blasts with water cannons and a temporary metal barrier that authorities eventually removed.
Then came the December 12 vote to solidify what many regard as a "court-packing" effort by Ivanishvili.
"I think this decision terribly raised the stakes for a political solution and 2020 elections, unfortunately," Anna Dolidze, a human rights lawyer and law professor who has been on the High Council of Justice since early 2018, told RFE/RL. "It left the 2020 political elections as basically the only source of change and left a lot of people without trust in a legal solution to political issues or other human rights grievances."
Dolidze, who was the last Georgian president's parliamentary secretary in 2016-18 and a deputy secretary of defense before that, has been critical of this and past administrations on judiciary reform and rule-of-law issues.
She likened the current threat to another rocky period in Georgia's postindependence politics, before Ivanishvili entered politics to trounce then-President Mikheil Saakashvili's allies in the 2012 elections, when "people realized there was no way for them to channel their grievances."
Dolidze expressed concern that the realistic remedies could boil down to costly and cumbersome vetting and reshuffling after elections or "a power game in the streets."
"Neither is good for the country," she added.
Transparency International Georgia warned on December 6 that mounting political clashes were taking "dangerous forms for the country" amid the authorities' perceived failure to prevent or punish offenses by Georgian Dream supporters against protesters.
The U.S. Embassy issued a statement after the Supreme Court appointments that lent weight to the process's critics.
"During the hearings, a number of candidates were unable to demonstrate sufficiently their legal expertise or a commitment to impartiality," the embassy said. "We regret the list of candidates approved in parliament today includes such nominees."
The Shame Movement -- For Freedom group claimed responsibility for the spillage of foul-smelling liquid that interrupted the debate in parliament on December 12 in a post on its Facebook page that included the hashtag #Systemstinks.
It said the substance activists released was "a veterinary antiseptic liquid" that had been "tested prior to public use in emergency circumstances."
"If anything is poisoned, it is the country in Ivanishvili's hands," one of the movement's members told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.