Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 27

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania was buried on Sunday, February 6, becoming the 101st distinguished Georgian to be interred in the Didube memorial in Tbilisi. As the Georgian people paid their last respect to Zhvania at the St. Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, confidants of Zhvania and President Mikheil Saakashvili stood far apart, almost as if they were corroborating the rumors that Zhvania had fallen victim to the continuous power struggle between him and Saakashvili’s team.

Indeed, few people in Georgia, including Zhvania’s relatives, believe that Zhvania and his friend Raul Usupov actually died from fumes escaping from an improperly installed space heater in Usupov’s apartment. Parliamentarian Elene Tevdoradze recalled that Zhvania’s mother twice asked her, “Did they kill my son?” (Resonance, February 5). Usupov’s father also claims that his son was killed (Civil Georgia, February 7).

Analysts have called attention to the fact that the government, represented by Minister of Police and Public Security Vano Merabishvili, hastily concluded that Zhvania had died from accidental asphyxiation even before the autopsy results were published. Merabishvili’s statement, critics charge, served to give investigators the official line that their results were to confirm. Blood tests detected fatal doses (60.6%-73.9%) of carbon monoxide in both Zhvania and Usupov (Akhali Taoba, February 5). Meanwhile, an independent forensic expert, Maya Nikoleishvili, who did not examine Zhvania’s body herself, doubted that the prime minister had died as a result of carbon monoxide gas and said that the results might have been used to fake an accident. Nikoleishvili and other experts want the investigation to be as transparent as possible (7 Dge, February 3).

Many rumors are circulating about Zhvania’s last hours. Investigators are seeking the person who called Zhvania’s cell phone around 11:30 pm on Wednesday, February 2. After the call, Zhvania hastily left his home. Some of the facts surrounding Zhvania’s death seem suspicious. Journalists want to know whether the gas heater in Usupov’s apartment had been replaced and its tailpipe cut. While Zhvania was visiting Usupov, his bodyguards allowed several hours to pass before they checked on him, although regulations state that they must do so every thirty minutes. The guard violated regulations again when they did not conduct a security sweep of the apartment, including an inspection of its appliances. Although the official statement reported that a backgammon game appeared to have been in progress when the men died, Zhvania’s friends say that he hated backgammon and it was highly unlikely that he was playing this game past midnight with the little-known Usupov (Resonance, February 7). A team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is due to arrive in Tbilisi to help Georgian law enforcement with the investigation of Zhvania’s death as well as the deadly bomb attack in the city of Gori on February 1.

Some analysts and politicians tend to see a link between the two tragic events. Avtandil Ioseliani, the former head of Georgian intelligence, said that the Gori explosion was to serve as a warning from Georgia’s enemies and that Zhvania’s death provided evidence of plans to destabilize the country (Resonance, January 7). During the eulogies at Zhvania’s funeral, President Saakashvili and other politicians spoke out about “external hostile forces,” evidently alluding to Russia (TV Rustavi-2, TV-Mze, February 3-6). Some pundits speculated that Zhvania’s death might have served the interests of those who had lost their political and economic clout following the Rose Revolution (Resonance, February 7). International observers also tend to doubt the official version of Zhvania’s death. Representatives of international news agencies said that they planned to remain in Tbilisi to clarify all details of the investigation (TV Rustavi-2, January 6).

Meanwhile, according to the constitution, President Saakashvili is expected to nominate a new prime minister on February 10, the same day that Saakashvili plans to submit to parliament his review of the year 2004. Currently consultations are underway between the president and the parliamentary factions. Saakashvili’s choice will largely predetermine the balance among the political forces that currently hold power in Georgia. From Zhvania’s team, the possible candidates are: Zurab Noghaideli, Minister of Finance, Kakha Bendukidze, State Minister for Economic and Infrastructure Reforms, Kakha Lomaya, Minister of Education, and Mikheil Machavariani, deputy speak of parliament. However, sources say that Saakashvili has long been grooming his close confidant Irakli Okruashvili, currently minister of defense and the initiator of the recent squabble between the Saakashvili and Zhvania teams, to be prime minister (see EDM, January 11). Kote Kemularia, chair of the Supreme Court, is another candidate from Saakashvili’s camp. At the same time, both anti- and pro-Saakashvili politicians and experts have begun to speak out about abolishing the post of prime minister, which they say had been created especially for Zhvania (TV “Kavkasia,” February 7; Resonance, February 8).

Georgian media has speculated that Georgian Parliament chair Nino Burjanadze received an offer to become prime minister. However, Burjanadze denied the information, saying that she has not received any offer from Saakashvili. “It will be difficult for the government to find a candidate for prime minister who is of a similar political rank as Zhvania, but consultations must start soon,” she told journalists (24 Hours, February 8).

Georgia is entering its post-Zhvania political era. Analysts are unanimous in their belief that Zhvania’s death will not harm Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policy. However, concerns are high about unbalanced power inside a country already fraught with political instability. Many future policy directions are possible. Former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze admitted that he had been “raising Zhvania as his own child,” adding that if the deeds initiated by Zhvania continue, the country would only benefit (Media News, February 6).