Zhvania's death occurred at the apartment of Raul Usupov, the deputy governor of the Kvemo-Kartli region, who also died in the incident. The prime minister's bodyguards discovered the bodies of the two men at about 4:30 am, breaking down the apartment's door after not receiving a response to knocking and a cell-phone call, according to reports. The two had apparently succumbed to carbon-monoxide fumes.
The motivation for Zhvania's late-night visit to Usupov's apartment remains shrouded in mystery. A source told EurasiaNet that the prime minister reportedly received a phone call around midnight, as he was preparing to go to bed, prompting him to change his plans and depart for Usupov's apartment. Inside the apartment, investigators found an open backgammon board. According to Vasil Maghlaperidze, a member of parliament, Usupov had been seeking a meeting with the prime minister for the past week.
Vano Merabishvili, the minister of internal affairs, announced that a preliminary investigation ruled out criminal action in connections with the deaths. Authorities fixed the cause on a faulty heating system, which had recently been installed in Usupov's apartment.
Nugzar Mkhedze, a representative of Tbilgazi, said the Iranian-manufactured heater had not been properly installed causing fumes to accumulate inside the poorly ventilated apartment. "The heater consumes oxygen from the room. When there is no more oxygen, it poisons the air," he explained. "In the back, there was not a good connection. Fifteen to 20 minutes is enough to start poisoning a person."
Mkhedze added that Zhvania and Usupov could well have been unaware of the poisoning danger, given that carbon monoxide is difficult to detect. "You just want to sleep. You fall asleep and die," Mkhedze said in a statement issued after examining Usupov's apartment.
Late on February 3, Deputy Justice Minister Levan Samkharauli announced that forensic tests revealed that Zhvania's body contained double the lethal amount of carboxihemoglobin a product of carbon-monoxide inhalation -- in his bloodstream. The build-up of carboxihemoglobin in Zhvania's and Usupov's bodies cut the oxygen supply to their brains and other organs, causing them to asphyxiate, Samkharauli indicated.
Zhvania's death shocked Georgia's political establishment. A visibly shaken President Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking on Georgian television, said Zhvania's untimely death posed a significant challenge to the government's stabilization efforts [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "This is a blow for our country and for me personally," Saakashvili said. "I call on everybody to be strong, to stand together and continue to serve our country."
Manana Nachepia, a representative of the New Right/Industrialists opposition coalition, lamented Zhvania's passing, saying the country has lost a patriot. "Even though we were opposition, we considered him very smart, very energetic and he fought for [Georgia]," she said in a telephone interview. "I can't say any thing concrete about what will be next, but I hope everything falls unto place and goes well."
The news of Zhvania's death came on the heels of a February 1 car-bombing in the city of Gori. Saakashvili characterized the bombing as a terrorist act, and it has heightened the tension surrounding the Georgian government's efforts to reintegrate the break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The tragedy could also significantly impact the country's privatization process, one of Zhvania's primary responsibilities. [See related EurasiaNet story].
Saakashvili announced that, for the time being, he would assume Zhvania's duties, the Civil Georgia web site reported late on February 3. Earlier reports had indicated that Saakashvili had elevated Vice Premier Giorgi Baramidze to serve as the provisional head of government.
Saakashvili reportedly convened a late-night session of the country's National Security Council on February 3 to discuss potential prime ministerial candidates. Saakashvili indicated that he would nominate a replacement for Zhvania within a week, a Civil Georgia report said.
Zurab Zhvania, who was 41 at the time of his death, had been prominent in Georgia's reform movement for over 15 years. Political analysts in Tbilisi described him as the glue that held Saakashvili's cabinet together, serving as a bridge between economic reformers, led by financial trouble-shooter Kakha Bendukidze and the nationalist faction led by Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. He was one of the few members of the cabinet with extensive experience in positions of authority. Zhvania leaves behind a wife, Nino, and three children; Elizabeth, Bessarion and Ann.
A biologist by training, he got his start in politics in 1989, when he was elected chairman of the Georgian Green Party. In 1992, Zhvania was elected to parliament. The next year, he catapulted to national prominence, becoming the secretary-general of the newly established Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG), which was at the time envisioned as a political support vehicle for then-president Eduard Shevardnadze.
The CUG swept the parliamentary elections of 1995, and Zhvania emerged as the speaker of the legislature. He held that post until 2001, when he resigned amid a government crisis. During his tenure as parliament speaker, he led the so-called "Young Reformer" movement and was instrumental in bringing Saakashvili into Shevardnadze's administration as justice minister. Like Zhvania, Saakashvili resigned in late 2001, complaining about corruption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In opposition to Shevardnadze, Zhvania and Saakashvili pursued different political courses, with the present-day president favoring more confrontational tactics. Saakashvili's aggressiveness captured publicity, enabling him to vault past Zhvania as the most prominent figure in Georgia's reform movement.
In the post-Shevardnadze era, Zhvania and Saakashvili appeared to coexist well as the government pursued an ambitious program to reintegrate the country and root out corruption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In televised comments February 3, Saakashvili called Zhvania his "closest friend, closest adviser and faithful ally."
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Tbilisi.