President Saakashvili Urges Team To Remain United After

RFE/RL Georgia: President Urges Team To Remain United After Prime
Minister’s Death

Thursday, 03 February 2005

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Georgian authorities today announced that Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania
had been found dead in a friend’s apartment in Tbilisi. Officially,
the head of the Georgian government died of gas poisoning. Whatever
the exact circumstances of his death, his disappearance is likely to
seriously impact Georgia’s politics.

Prague, 3 February 2005 (RFE/RL) — Hours after the news of Zhvania’s
death was made public, cabinet ministers held an emergency meeting
under the chairmanship of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Looking unusually pale, his voice trembling with emotion, Saakashvili
said the loss of Zurab Zhvania was a major blow to Georgia.

“This is a major blow to our country, and to me personally, both as
president and as a man, just as it is probably to all of you. With
Zurab Zhvania, Georgia lost a great patriot, who had tirelessly
dedicated his entire life to serving his country. I lost my closest
friend, my most trusted adviser, and my greatest ally,” Saakashvili

The 41-year old Zhvania was a key element of the youthful team of
Georgian leaders that took over from president Eduard Shevardnadze 15
months ago.

Following Shevardnadze’s resignation in November 2003, Zhvania became
the number two figure in the triumvirate that took over the reins of

In February 2004, Saakashvili offered him the newly created post of
prime minister with broad powers over the economy and the upcoming
privatization program.

Pushing For Peace

Zhvania was not only involved in domestic issues. He was also a key
element in Georgia’s attempts at restoring control over its two
separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Following last summer’s armed clashes in South Ossetia, Zhvania
initiated direct peace talks with separatist leader Eduard Kokoity.

The South Ossetian government today expressed its regret over
Zhvania’s death.

Boris Chochiyev, South Ossetia’s chief negotiator with Georgia, told
Russia’s RIA-Novosti news agency that “Zhvania represented that part
of the Georgian leadership which we can describe as ‘the party of

Chochiyev, in particular, credited the late Georgian prime minister
for putting an end to last summer’s tensions, saying: “We were
convinced that, unlike others, he was in favor of a peaceful
resolution of the [Georgian-South Ossetian] conflict.”

Hard To Replace

In Russia, too, some politicians expressed concern over the possible
consequences of Zhvania’s death.

For Konstantin Zatulin, a pro-government member of Russia’s lower
house of parliament, the State Duma, Zhvania was a “predictable”
politician. He said Zhvania’s death may affect Tbilisi’s relations
with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The South Ossetian leadership has blamed last summer’s armed clashes
on Saakashvili and then interior minister Irakli Okruashvili. It was
on Saakashvili’s orders and under Okruashvili’s supervision that
troops entered South Ossetia last June, officially to combat smuggling
gangs active in the region. The operation eventually triggered armed
clashes with South Ossetian forces, bringing both sides to the verge
of war.

Georgian media have in recent weeks speculated about growing
disagreements between Okruashvili — who was appointed defense
minister in December 2004 — and Zhvania’s allies in the cabinet.

As evidence to reports of infighting, the Tbilisi-based “Rezonansi”
daily last month cited Okruashvili’s recent accusations of corruption
launched against top army officials who had been appointed at the time
that Giorgi Baramidze, a close associate of Zhvania, was defense

As if he foresaw further problems among his team, Saakashvili today
urged government members to remain united and “support each other.”

“At this difficult time for both the country and for us — and for me
personally — I would like to urge you all to remain firm and
persevering. At this difficult time for the Georgian government, you
can render no greater service to the country than to remain loyal
servants to your country, to Georgia, to our people. That is what
Zurab Zhvania devoted his entire life to and that is your most sacred
duty. However difficult it may be, we must continue to serve our
country, Georgia, every minute of our life and up until the end,”
Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili’s press adviser Medea Akhalkatsi later said that,
according to the constitution, the president has seven days to
nominate a new prime minister and ask parliament to approve his

Meanwhile, Zhvania’s daily duties will be temporarily taken over by
Baramidze, who is now a deputy prime minister and a state minister in
charge of Georgia’s European integration.

QUOTE: “At this difficult time for the Georgian government, you can
render no greater service to the country than to remain loyal servants
to your country, to Georgia, to our people.” — Georgian President
Mikheil Saakashvili