Georgian Prime Minister Found Dead

Associated Press
February 4, 2005

By MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI, Associated Press Writer

TBILISI, Georgia - Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who helped lead
Georgia's revolution that toppled the corruption-tainted regime of
Eduard Shevardnadze, died early Thursday in a friend's apartment from
what officials claimed was an accidental gas leak from a heater.

Georgia's interior minister said there was no reason to suspect foul
play, but a lawmaker reportedly pointed the finger at "outside
forces." His remark appeared to be aimed at Russia, which has ties
with Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and
prompted a terse response from Moscow.

The lawmaker, Amiran Shalamberidze, noted that the death of Zhvania,
41, came days after a car bombing that killed three policemen in Gori,
the city nearest to South Ossetia. Zhvania, considered a moderate
influence in the government of this former Soviet republic, had been
trying to negotiate settlements with the separatist regions.

"There is the impression that that these tragic facts didn't occur by
chance but were the results of interference from the side of certain
outside forces," Shalamberidze was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass
news agency.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, asked about the lawmaker's
allegation, said in Moscow that "the statements of those who rush to
make judgments ... will remain on their consciences."

Georgia has a history of political intrigue that sometimes turns
violent. An autopsy was under way and the prosecutor-general's office
said an investigation had been opened.

In addition to the talks with the separatists, Zhvania was trying to
crack down on corruption and crime.

The prime minister was visiting the Tbilisi apartment of his friend,
Zurab Usupov, deputy governor of the Kvemo-Kartli region, who also
died, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said on Rustavi-2
television.

Security guards broke through a window when they heard no signs of
life from inside several hours after the prime minister arrived,
Merabishvili said. Zhvania had entered the apartment about midnight
Wednesday, and the guards came in between 4 a.m. and 4:30 a.m.

"It is an accident," Merabishvili said. "We can say that poisoning by
gas took place."

A gas-fired heating stove was in the main room of the mezzanine-floor
apartment, where a table was set up with a backgammon set lying open
upon it. Zhvania was in a chair; Usupov's body was found in the
kitchen. Police declined to give further details.

Zhvania was a key ally of President Mikhail Saakashvili in leading the
November 2003 protests against election fraud that came to be known as
the "Rose Revolution." The demonstrations drove Shevardnadze to
resign.

Saakashvili created the post of prime minister shortly after his
election in January 2004, and he nominated Zhvania for the job.

Some critics said at the time that creating the post was essentially a
move to satisfy the ambitions of Zhvania, whose joining with
Saakashvili in the protests was seen as partly a marriage of
convenience.

In Georgia, the president wields most of the power. The prime
minister is approved by parliament and names a government, but the
president has the power to name the ministers of defense, security and
the interior.

On the day before his death, Zhvania had urged Georgians to hold back
from suspecting South Ossetian involvement in the car-bombing in Gori.

Zhvania's government also was working to overcome Georgia's endemic
corruption, which had enriched some Shevardnadze-era officials while
the country's economy deteriorated.

Levan Chichua, a top official in Georgia's National Bureau of Forensic
Medicine, said there were no signs of violence and that preliminary
examination showed both died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Deputy
Prosecutor-General Georgy Dzhanashia told journalists the heater was
installed "with serious technical violations ... there was no
ventilation in the apartment."

Central heating is scarce in Georgia. Many people rely on gas or wood
stoves in their homes and fatal malfunctions are often reported.

Saakashvili convened an emergency Cabinet meeting, which began with a
moment of silence.

"Georgia has lost a great patriot, who devoted his entire life to
serving the motherland. Zurab's death is a great blow to Georgia and
to me personally," Saakashvili said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (news - web sites ) sent a telegram
of condolence to Saakashvili, which said that Zhvania "was well known
in Russia as a supporter of the development of friendly,
good-neighborly relations between the Russian and Georgian peoples."

A minister in South Ossetia's separatist government, Boris Chochiyev,
expressed shock.

Zhvania was "among the Georgian politicians who favored a peaceful
settlement of the conflict. I can say that he represented the party of
peace," Chochiyev told The Associated Press.

Zhvania is survived by his wife and three children.


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