Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Gas Poisoning Accident Kills Georgian PM

Freak accident removes key figure of Georgian revolution at a critical stage.
By Sebastian Smith

An accidental gas leak was blamed for the death of Georgia’s prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, robbing the inexperienced government that took power in the “Rose Revolution” of its most wily political operator.


Officials said that Zhvania, 41, died of carbon monoxide poisoning on the night of February 2 while seeing a friend in the capital Tbilisi, although many ordinary people in this turbulent Caucasus country immediately gave way to conspiracy theories about an assassination.


Bodyguards found Zhvania dead in an armchair at the apartment where he had apparently been playing backgammon with the regional deputy governor of Kvemo-Kartli region, Raul Usupov, whose body was discovered in the kitchen.


President Mikheil Saakashvili described Zhvania’s loss as “a huge blow for our country and personally for me as a president”. His voice cracking, he added, “I have lost my closest friend, my most loyal adviser, my biggest ally.”


Some observers feared that Zhvania’s absence will upset the sometimes fragile political balance in government, with the more radical faction, spearheaded by Defence Minister Irakly Okruashvili, gaining an upper hand. There was also a question over the possible effect on conflict resolution efforts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


The president called an emergency cabinet session, starting with a moment of silence, as Georgians absorbed the news, coming two days after a car bomb near a separatist province killed three policemen and seriously injured 15. The president has seven days to name a new prime minister.


President Vladimir Putin, who has tense relations with western-leaning Georgia, sent a letter of condolences, the Kremlin said. The US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, praised Zhvania as a “courageous and wonderful man”.


Though never popular, Zhvania was considered the brains of the “Rose Revolution” which overthrew Eduard Shevardnadze in late 2003, as well as a steadying influence over the young radicals who took over, led by Saakashvili, 37.


Hours after the news, Shevardnadze called Zhvania Georgia’s “greatest state figure, a brilliant person”.


“It’s a tragedy for Georgia at this critical moment,” said Archil Gegeshidze of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “He played a very unique and important role in the country. He was one of the most experienced statesmen in the country – a kind of brain trust of the government. It will be very hard to find an adequate replacement for him.”


Since independence from the Soviet Union, Georgians have experienced civil war, two separatist conflicts, the mysterious death of their first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and several assassination attempts against Shevardnadze.


Many ordinary Georgians immediately suspected foul play, citing Zhvania’s sometimes difficult relations with Saakashvili, his involvement in attempts to resolve the separatist conflict in South Ossetia, and his role in a recent wave of privatisation deals.


“I don’t think this was an accident,” Ketino Aznaurashvili, a Tbilisi doctor, said. “Someone wanted him dead.”


However, the evidence made public so far points to a poisoning from a faulty gas heater, a not infrequent occurrence in Tbilisi, where few buildings have central heating and gas supplies are sometimes cut. Deputy justice minister Levan Samkharauli said Zhvania’s blood contained double the minimum amount of carboxihemoglobin needed to kill.


“The body shows no signs of violence,” deputy prosecutor general Giorgi Janashia told journalists.


Officials said the heater was an Iranian-made model and that there was insufficient air circulation to prevent the build-up of the fatal gas.


The task for Saakashvili now is to rebuild a government in which Zhvania had been a key player.


“He ensured there was a balance,” said Paata Zakareishvili, analyst at the Centre for Development and Cooperation. Zhvania and Saakashvili “controlled each other”.


Now that there is no real counterweight to the power of the radicals, symbolised by the impulsive and ambitious Okruashvili, the responsibility will fall on Saakashvili, said Zakareishvili. If the president further embraces Okruashvili “we won’t be going toward democracy”.


Levan Berdzenishvili, a member of parliament from the opposition Republican Party, said that Zhvania had been “very necessary to Saakashvili. Zhvania took the blame for a lot of the bad luck. He was the scapegoat, while Saakashvili took credit for the good. This was an institutionalised role, even when he didn’t deserve it.”


Berdzenishvili said the ultimate result of the coming cabinet shake-up will be constitutional changes that will scrap the premier’s post, which was created in 2004 specially to reward Zhvania for his role in the Rose Revolution.


Zhvania was also central to efforts to resolve the long standoff between Tbilisi and the authorities in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity expressed regret at the news, saying the premier had “played a great role” in peacemaking. “We hope that his death would not affect the process of the talks,” he said.


The breakaway government’s special affairs minister Boris Chochiev said that Zhvania was part of the “party of peace”.


In Abkhazia, the president-elect, Sergei Bagapsh, assured that “the conflict settlement process will continue”.


Sebastian Smith is IWPR’s trainer/editor based in Tbilisi.