Death of Georgia’s Prime Minister Fuels Speculation

Death of Georgia’s Prime Minister Fuels Speculation
By Anna Arutunyan and Oleg Liakhovich

The Moscow News
14.02.05 Monday

Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania died last week in what appeared
to be a tragic accident involving household gas, but his death has
fueled fantastic speculations surrounding Georgia’s geopolitical
relationship to Russia since President Mikhail Saakashvili came to
power one year ago in a coup much like Ukraine’s.

Zhvania, accompanied by security guards, was visiting his friend,
deputy governor of the Kvema Kartli region Raul Yusupov, in his home
on Wednesday night. After the guards lost touch with him over the
phone, they broke down the door and found the prime minister dead,
slumped over a table set with food and backgammon. His friend was
found dead in the kitchen.

Preliminary investigations linked the deaths with gas poisoning.

Investigators initially suspected a gas leak, while medics determined
the cause of death to be carbon-monoxide poisoning. There were no
signs of violence in the apartment or on Zhvania’s body. But there
was also no evidence of a gas leak in the stove; investigators believe
that carbon monoxide had accumulated in the room.

The Prosecutor General has said that FBI experts will join a team of
forensic analysts to ascertain the circumstances of Zhvania’s death.

Zhvania seemed an unlikely target for an assassination. He had
headed the majority political party under Eduard Shevardnadze’s
administration, and was instrumental in guiding the country through
a bloodless transformation when Shevardnadze was ousted from power
after Saakashvili’s landslide victory. Saakashvili, however, insisted
on territorial integrity for his country, which has suffered years
of war in two breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia,
meanwhile, has backed the separation of Abkhazia, going as far as to
grant Russian citizenship to its residents. After the Revolution of
Roses, the conflict in the regions escalated, heightening tensions
between Russia and the former Soviet state.

In light of this, Georgian parliamentarian Amiran Shalamberidze
said on Thursday that Russia was behind the poisoning, and linked
Zhvania’s death to a car bombing that killed three policemen in Gori,
the Georgian city nearest to South Ossetia, earlier this week. On the
day he died, Zhvania had cautioned against blaming South Ossetians
for the car bombing.

The allegations were immediately blasted, however, by Georgian
officials. Indeed, Zhvania was a moderate who had always tried to
seek a compromise, and had backed Russia for peaceful negotiations
in Abkhazia.

Still, Saakashvili’s slip of the tongue – “About Zhvania’s
murder… I’m sorry, death” during a conference Friday only added
more weight to various allegations. The wife of Yusupov suggested that
the meeting between her husband and Zhvania was initially planned for
another apartment. And former speaker of Shevarnadze’s party, Irina
Sarishvili-Chanturia blatantly implicated the Georgian government in
Zhvania’s death.

If it was a rumor, it never seemed to die. While Russian commentators
speculated on national television that Saakashvili himself may
have been behind Zhvania’s death, the murder of Zhvania’s friend,
Georgian businessman Mamuk Dzhincharadze, in Moscow on Saturday,
only corroborated the speculations.

Dzhincharadze headed the SlavTek oil company in Russia, where he was
a parliamentarian in the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk. But he had
also been invited personally by Zhvania to take part in last summer’s
Russia-Georgia business forum.

With over a week to go before the official verdict on Zhvania’s cause
of death, Moscow tabloids, citing law enforcement authorities, rushed
to note that Dzhincharadze had enemies both in Russia and Georgia.