Zurab Zhvania

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Tragedy in Georgia: Armenia's neighbor to the North suffers loss of Prime Minister

By Suren Deheryan and Aris Ghazinyan
ArmeniaNow reporters

Officials in Yerevan expressed condolences to their neighbors in Georgia on Thursday, after learning of the unexpected death of Georgia's Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.

Zhvania, 41, was found dead early Thursday morning at the home of an Azeri friend, Raul Yusupov, who also died in what appears to be accidental gas poisoning caused by a faulty heater.

The deaths were discovered about 4:30 a.m. after Zhvania's bodyguards become concerned when the Prime Minister did not answer phone calls.

Georgian authorities discounted rumors of foul play, saying that tests found fatal levels of a substance called oxyhemoglobin in Zhvania's blood. Police say blood samples will be sent for testing at the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In Armenia as well as in Georgia there is no centralized heating system and many people use gas heaters. Last year twenty-five people died in Armenia from carbon monoxide poisoning.

President Robert Kocharian sent his condolences to President Mikhail Saakashvili saying that `Zurab Zhvania had a great contribution in the establishment of statehood and strengthening of democracy in brotherly Georgia. His input in deepening centuries-long friendship of our peoples is invaluable.'

The name of Zurab Zhvania became widely known in Armenia in 1995 when he took the post of Parliament Speaker of Georgia as Secretary General of the `Union of Citizens of Georgia' party established by Eduard Shevardnadze.

His rise in Georgian politics was watched by Yerevan, partly because the politician was half Armenian, owing to his mother, Emma.

But during the years of his country's `Georgia for Georgians' campaign, Zhvania often claimed that he was not Armenian (a position he reversed during 2003's `Rose Revolution').

In 2003, Vice-Speaker of the Georgian Parliament Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, criticizing Zhvania, called the latter a `pervert' and an `Armenian'. Later he offered his apologies to the Armenian mass media, saying: `I want to remind you that several years ago Zurab Zhvania, in the capacity of Georgia's Parliament Speaker, publicly stated that he is not an Armenian.'

The `Armenian subject-matter' came to surface on the Georgian political field with fresh impetus during the period of change of power when some representatives of the radically disposed Georgian establishment began to accuse Saakashvili, Burjanadze and Zhvania for their Armenian origin. It was then that the press wrote about the contacts the young Georgian reformers had with influential Armenians of the United States. All this, eventually, became widespread as a result of which the Georgian mass media began to call the `Revolution of Roses' also the `Armenian Revolution'.

On Thursday, Saakashvili called a special meeting of the government to express his deepest concern over the death of his `closest friend and advisor'. `This is a great tragedy for our country and for me personally,' said the president. `Georgia lost a great patriot.'

Georgian leader did not say who will lead the cabinet of ministers after PM's death. According to Georgian constitution the head of the government will be named in a week.

Zhvania, the closest ally of Saakashvili was a key leader of the 2003 "Rose Revolution" protests that toppled veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze and brought the West-oriented Saakashvili into power. Zhvania become PM in January 2004 and was one of the key government figures trying to negotiate settlements with two conflict regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Before the Rose Revolution Zhvania was believed to be the key official successor of Shevardnadze as president of Georgia. He was known for his pro-western views and for regarding Georgian-Russian relations as "close to cold war." Alexander Iskandaryan, the political analysts of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan, says that though it is yet early to speak about the situation in the region, but Zhvania's death will have a negative effect on the future development of Georgia.

`Under the new constitution this post was, strictly speaking, established for Zhvania. It was created for a specific figure, it was a political decision to a large degree. Zhvania is a man exceptionally important for the Georgian political system,' Iskhanaryan told ArmeniaNow, speaking from Tbilisi where he was to attend an international conference led by Zhvania. `I can hardly imagine what may happen to this post now.'

(Armenia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vardan Oskanian was also planning to attend the conference.)

Iskandaryan hopes that Georgian-Armenian relations will not suffer with the death of Zhvania. `This is quite a large complex of mutual relations in different spheres from politics to economy and I don't think that what happened may bring any sharp changes. It is another matter, however, that changes may happen in Georgia itself and this may influence its relations with neighbors, including Armenia.'

`Everybody understands that some new stage of the country's development has come. Zhvania was not only a clever and wise politician, but he was in principle division of power,' Tamara Mchedlishvili, political analyst of the independent Georgian newspaper `24 Hours' told ArmeniaNow. `You know there was the trio - Nino Burjanadze, Mikhail Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania. Each one of this trio had his/her own function. Zurab Zhvania played a very big role in modern Georgian politics. Now it is difficult to judge how events will develop without him.'

Copyright 2005, ArmeniaNow. Used with permission.