Georgia’s prime minister has died of apparent gas poisoning, robbing the turbulent ex-Soviet state of one of its most experienced politicians.
Zurab Zhvania had been staying with a friend. When he failed to answer repeated telephone calls his bodyguards broke into the house in the capital Tbilisi to find both the prime minister and his friend dead. Police say a leak from a heater was the likely cause. Gas poisonings from faulty appliances are common in Georgia. President Mikhail Saakashvili called an emergency meeting to discuss the implications of Zhvania’s death. He said he had lost his closest friend, his most loyal advisor, and his biggest ally. The president will take over as caretaker prime minister. He has a week to name a new premier, and the full cabinet line-up must be finalised within ten days. Zhvania was a key figure in the so-called “Rose Revolution” in late 2003 which brought Saakashvili to power. He was rewarded with the post of prime minister, a portfolio created specifically for him. It was a smooth change of political clothing. Previously Zhvania had been groomed for power by Eduard Shevardnadze, the former president toppled by the events of November 2003. Zhvania had his fair share of enemies, but was widely seen as a steadying hand in a country grappling with painful economic reforms and intractable ethnic conflicts. When Saakashvili’s relations with separatist regions or with Moscow chilled, Zhvania acted as a go-between. He was also viewed as an able organiser in a cabinet with little experience of government. Zhvania was 41 and married with three children.