Abkhazia: Georgian Prime Minister Found Dead
"I must tell you that a terrible tragedy happened last night. The prime minister of Georgia, Mr. Zurab Zhvania, died," Merabishvili said.
Zhvania was one of Georgia's most urbane, intelligent, astute, and experienced politicians.
Born on 9 December 1963, Zhvania studied biology at Tbilisi State University, graduating in 1985. In the late 1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of liberalization gave the green light for the emergence of informal political organizations across the Soviet Union, Zhvania founded Georgia's Green Party. And in late 1992, he was elected to the country's first post-Soviet parliament.
It was in his capacity as a young and eloquent parliament deputy that Zhvania first came to the notice of then parliament chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, who catapulted Zhvania to the chairmanship of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), the political party Shevardnadze created as his personal powerbase in 1993.
Following the parliamentary elections in 1995, in which the SMK won an absolute majority, Zhvania -- as head of the SMK -- became parliament chairman, the de facto second most influential post in the country. Within a couple of years, many observers concluded that Shevardnadze was grooming Zhvania to succeed him as president.
But the period of close political cooperation between Zhvania and Shevardnadze proved to be comparatively short-lived. In July 1998, Zhvania warned that corruption and the government's failure to implement systemic reform had brought the country to "the edge of the abyss."
Zhvania threatened to resign and take on the role of "constructive opposition" within parliament unless radical measures were adopted to kickstart reform. Six weeks later, in late August 1998, the SMK parliament faction elected as its chairman U.S.-trained lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili, a Zhvania protege.
Over the next few years, the two men took an increasingly tougher stand on Shevardnadze's apparent unwillingness to implement a drastic crackdown on corruption, which they perceived as hindering economic revival and tarnishing Georgia's international reputation. They also took a far more radical position than did Shevardnadze on the issue of relations with Russia.
In late 2000 and early 2001, Zhvania and Shevardnadze both repeatedly denied persistent rumors of tensions between them. But those tensions between the president and the would-be young reformers within the SMK came to a head in November 2001 when -- faced by mass popular protests over a crackdown on the popular independent television station Rustavi-2 -- Shevardnadze outmaneuvered Zhvania and forced his resignation.
In November 2002, Zhvania announced that he planned to run in the presidential elections due in 2005 when Shevardnadze's second presidential term was set to expire. He spoke ahead of parliamentary elections in November 2003.
"These are elections which will mark the beginning of the end of 30 years of Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia and will start a new period when new forces will come to power. Who will these people be? Will they symbolize and bring to Georgia a European way of development, or will this be another form of Soviet nostalgia? So this is why these are very important elections -- elections which will decide how Georgia's future will look in the next few decades," Zhvania said.
Despite his close ties with Saakashvili, Zhvania was reluctant to align closely with him. In February 2002, the newspaper "Akhali versiya" quoted Zhvania as criticizing what he termed Saakashvili's "excessive radicalism."
In the runup to the 2 November 2003 parliamentary elections, Zhvania's United Democrats forged an election alliance not with Saakashvili's National Movement but with the eponymous political bloc formed by Zhvania's successor as parliament speaker, Nino Burdjanadze.
When the election bloc cobbled together by Shevardnadze to replace the SMK was seen as manipulating election returns, Zhvania, Burdjanadze, and Saakashvili joined forces to mobilize popular protest.
Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November paved the way for a division of power in which Saakashvili ran for, and won, the presidency, and then named Zhvania to the reintroduced post of prime minister and Burdjanadze as parliament speaker.
In that post, Zhvania demonstrated his authority as a statesman, seeking to ensure that the government functioned as a cohesive team.
In May 2004, Zhvania spoke of the bloodless ouster of Adjaran leader Aslan Abashidze. Securing control over the autonomous republic is a key part of Saakashvili's re-centralization plans.
"This day, this early morning on St. George's Day, will certainly go down in the centuries-long history of Georgia as an absolutely special day. November, on St. George's Day, Georgia's capital was liberated when Eduard Shevardnadze left the political scene. And today, early on the morning of the 6th of May, also on St. George's Day, Aslan Abashidze has left," Zhvania said.
He also conducted difficult negotiations in August and November 2004 to defuse tensions between Tbilisi and the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia.
"South Ossetia is and will be part of Georgia. What we are ready to discuss is the autonomous status of this region within the Georgian state, and we indeed express our openness, our readiness, for broad and decent compromise in this regard," Zhvania said.
Opinion polls consistently listed Zhvania among the most intelligent and intellectual political figures in Georgia, but not as one of the most popular or the most trusted. Rumors of his involvement in questionable business activities were never substantiated, nor is it clear whether economic factors were behind the periodic alarms, most recently in August 2003, that he was a possible assassination target, or his uncompromising criticism of Moscow's policy towards Georgia.
Those rumors may fuel speculation about the somewhat bizarre circumstances of his death.
Speaking on Thursday, a clearly shaken Saakashvili paid tribute to Zhvania as a close friend and trusted political adviser.
"With Zurab Zhvania, Georgia has lost a great patriot who had dedicated his entire life to serve his country. Zurab's death is a hard blow to Georgia and to me personally. I lost my closest friend, who was also my most trusted adviser and ally," Saakashvili said.
Zhvania's death will be felt all the more acutely in that there is no figure of comparable political stature, authority, and ability in Georgia to replace him.