Authorities Declare Georgian Prime Minister’s Death an Accident


Thursday, February 3, 2005

By Molly Corso

Zurab Zhvania, Georgia’s prime minister and a member of the triumvirate
that led the country’s 2003 Rose Revolution, was found dead in a Tbilisi
apartment February 3, the apparent victim of carbon-monoxide poisoning.
An initial investigation indicated that Zhvania’s death was accidental.
The tragedy comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Georgian
government, and deprives the country of its most experienced reformist

Zhvania’s death occurred at the apartment of Raul Usupov, the deputy
governor of the Kvemo-Kartli region, who also died in the incident. The
prime minister’s bodyguards discovered the bodies of the two men at
about 4:30 am, breaking down the apartment’s door after not receiving a
response to knocking and a cell-phone call, according to reports. The
two had apparently succumbed to carbon-monoxide fumes.

The motivation for Zhvania’s late-night visit to Usupov’s apartment
remains shrouded in mystery. A source told EurasiaNet that the prime
minister reportedly received a phone call around midnight, as he was
preparing to go to bed, prompting him to change his plans and depart for
Usupov’s apartment. Inside the apartment, investigators found an open
backgammon board. According to Vasil Maghlaperidze, a member of
parliament, Usupov had been seeking a meeting with the prime minister
for the past week.

Vano Merabishvili, the minister of internal affairs, announced that a
preliminary investigation ruled out criminal action in connections with
the deaths. Authorities fixed the cause on a faulty heating system,
which had recently been installed in Usupov’s apartment.

Nugzar Mkhedze, a representative of Tbilgazi, said the
Iranian-manufactured heater had not been properly installed causing
fumes to accumulate inside the poorly ventilated apartment. “The heater
consumes oxygen from the room. When there is no more oxygen, it poisons
the air,” he explained. “In the back, there was not a good connection.
Fifteen to 20 minutes is enough to start poisoning a person.”

Mkhedze added that Zhvania and Usupov could well have been unaware of
the poisoning danger, given that carbon monoxide is difficult to detect.
“You just want to sleep. You fall asleep and die,” Mkhedze said in a
statement issued after examining Usupov’s apartment.

Late on February 3, Deputy Justice Minister Levan Samkharauli announced
that forensic tests revealed that Zhvania’s body contained double the
lethal amount of carboxihemoglobin – a product of carbon-monoxide
inhalation — in his bloodstream. The build-up of carboxihemoglobin in
Zhvania’s and Usupov’s bodies cut the oxygen supply to their brains and
other organs, causing them to asphyxiate, Samkharauli indicated.

Zhvania’s death shocked Georgia’s political establishment. A visibly
shaken President Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking on Georgian television,
said Zhvania’s untimely death posed a significant challenge to the
government’s stabilization efforts. “This is a blow for our country and
for me personally,” Saakashvili said. “I call on everybody to be strong,
to stand together and continue to serve our country.”

Manana Nachepia, a representative of the New Right/Industrialists
opposition coalition, lamented Zhvania’s passing, saying the country has
lost a patriot. “Even though we were opposition, we considered him very
smart, very energetic and he fought for [Georgia],” she said in a
telephone interview. “I can’t say any thing concrete about what will be
next, but I hope everything falls unto place and goes well.”

The news of Zhvania’s death came on the heels of a February 1
car-bombing in the city of Gori. Saakashvili characterized the bombing
as a terrorist act, and it has heightened the tension surrounding the
Georgian government’s efforts to reintegrate the break-away regions of
Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The tragedy could also significantly impact
the country’s privatization process, one of Zhvania’s primary

Saakashvili announced that, for the time being, he would assume
Zhvania’s duties, the Civil Georgia web site reported late on February
3. Earlier reports had indicated that Saakashvili had elevated Vice
Premier Giorgi Baramidze to serve as the provisional head of government.

Saakashvili reportedly convened a late-night session of the country’s
National Security Council on February 3 to discuss potential prime
ministerial candidates. Saakashvili indicated that he would nominate a
replacement for Zhvania within a week, a Civil Georgia report said.

Zurab Zhvania, who was 41 at the time of his death, had been prominent
in Georgia’s reform movement for over 15 years. Political analysts in
Tbilisi described him as the glue that held Saakashvili’s cabinet
together, serving as a bridge between economic reformers, led by
financial trouble-shooter Kakha Bendukidze and the nationalist faction
led by Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. He was one of the few
members of the cabinet with extensive experience in positions of
authority. Zhvania leaves behind a wife, Nino, and three children;
Elizabeth, Bessarion and Ann.

A biologist by training, he got his start in politics in 1989, when he
was elected chairman of the Georgian Green Party. In 1992, Zhvania was
elected to parliament. The next year, he catapulted to national
prominence, becoming the secretary-general of the newly established
Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG), which was at the time envisioned as a
political support vehicle for then-president Eduard Shevardnadze.

The CUG swept the parliamentary elections of 1995, and Zhvania emerged
as the speaker of the legislature. He held that post until 2001, when he
resigned amid a government crisis. During his tenure as parliament
speaker, he led the so-called “Young Reformer” movement and was
instrumental in bringing Saakashvili into Shevardnadze’s administration
as justice minister. Like Zhvania, Saakashvili resigned in late 2001,
complaining about corruption.

In opposition to Shevardnadze, Zhvania and Saakashvili pursued different
political courses, with the present-day president favoring more
confrontational tactics. Saakashvili’s aggressiveness captured
publicity, enabling him to vault past Zhvania as the most prominent
figure in Georgia’s reform movement.

The two became close allies again during the aftermath of the November
2003 parliamentary election, which they denounced as rigged by
Shevardnadze’s administration. The two, along with incumbent Parliament
Speaker Nino Burjanadze, helped galvanize popular protests into what
became known as the Rose Revolution, forcing Shevardnadze’s resignation.

In the post-Shevardnadze era, Zhvania and Saakashvili appeared to
coexist well as the government pursued an ambitious program to
reintegrate the country and root out corruption. In televised comments
February 3, Saakashvili called Zhvania his “closest friend, closest
adviser and faithful ally.”

Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance journalist and photographer
based in Tbilisi.