Russian analysts and media outlets believe the death of Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania could have significant repercussions for bilateral relations between Russia and Georgia, as well as for stability within Georgia itself.
Official statements out of the Kremlin since Zhvania's February 3 death have emphasized the political leader's moderation and responsibility. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Zhvania as a champion of "friendly and good-neighborly relations" between Russia and Georgia. Russian Transportation Minister Igor Levitin, who headed Russia's delegation to Zhvania's February 6 funeral in Tbilisi, described the late prime minister as "a responsible politician, who advocated the development of economic ties between Georgia and Russia." In remarks following the prime minister's death, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed plans to visit Georgia in mid-February for talks on a bilateral treaty, military issues and border delimitation, and emphasized that Russia "is sincerely interested in good relations with Georgia."
But in Zhvania's absence, Russian political analysts are now forecasting that relations may experience a chill in the near future. The departure of Zhvania, who was seen in Moscow as an advocate of compromise, could enhance the influence of hawkish nationalists within the Georgian government. In addition, Russian officials saw Zhvania as a counterweight to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who during his administration has occasionally acted and spoken impulsively.
"Zhvania was more predictable than the Georgian president," the pro-government Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin, head of the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute, told RIA Novosti on February 3. "I do not rule out that Saakashvili may launch some shady scheme that Zhvania most likely would have opposed," he told the news agency Interfax.
Helping to fuel such beliefs in Moscow was a comment from a Georgian member of parliament, who alleged, without providing supporting evidence, that Russia played a role in Zhvania's death from carbon monoxide poisoning. The MP, Alexander Shalamberidze, a member of the majority National Movement-Democrats, also alleged that the February 1 bomb explosion in the Georgian town of Gori and the death of Zhvania two days later could be viewed as connected, and masterminded "by certain forces operating in Russia." [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On February 3, Lavrov strongly denied the charge, describing the allegations as politically motivated. "We insist on the establishment and development of normal relations with Georgia regardless of who is in Georgia's leadership," Lavrov said.
The Kremlin has gained a considerable degree of influence over Russian media outlets in recent years, and, following Lavrov's official denial, the press responded in kind with a series of commentaries and articles that placed the onus for Zhvania's death on Georgia itself. On February 3, the day of Zhvania's death, Russia's official RIA-Novosti news agency commented that "something is rotten in the state of Georgia," citing unspecified Internet publications that claimed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stood to gain politically from the prime minister's death. On Feb.5, the day before Zhvania's funeral, the official Rossiskaya Gazeta published a report, citing only "our sources in Tbilisi," who claimed Zhvania had been murdered because he was supposedly pondering a move to leave the government and join the political opposition.
In another conspiracy theory, some Russian media reports have alleged that the February 5 shooting of Mamuka Dzhincharadze, an ethnic Georgian businessman who was a deputy in the city council of Nizhnevartovsk, a town in northeastern Siberia, is somehow connected with Zhvania's sudden demise. Officials, however, have described Dzincharadze's murder in Moscow as an apparent contract hit.
More significantly for bilateral ties, various Russian media outlets have alleged that plots to disrupt ongoing peace efforts with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are connected to Zhvania's death. Many in Georgia "did not like" Zhvania's call for negotiations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, his talks with former Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze, or his support for a troop withdrawal from South Ossetia in August 2004, said a commentary published by the daily Novye Izvestia on February 5.
By placing the blame on "external forces" for events in Gori and the prime minister's death, the daily newspaper Gudok commented on February 5, Tbilisi seeks justification for possible hard-line measures against Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, the daily concluded, the Georgian government hopes to secure additional Western pressure on Moscow in connection with the status of both breakaway regions, which depend heavily on Russia for economic and political support. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russian legislators, echoing the media's tone, expect Tbilisi to adopt a harder line in its dealings with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Andrei Kokoshin, head of the Russian Duma's Committee for Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, was quoted on February 8 by the RIA-Novosti news agency as saying that "[t]here are numerous signs which confirm that Tbilisi is far from rejecting its plans over a forceful settlement of the South Ossetian problem. It is not ruled out that Tbilisi will try to escalate tensions in South Ossetia by spring."
Some Moscow analysts consider Zhvania to be a victim of political intrigue in Tbilisi. "The Georgian premier's death has not come as an accident," said Vladimir Razuvayev, head of the Economic and Political Research Center, a Moscow-based think-tank. "It could have been connected with the party of war within the Georgian leadership." This January, media attention in Georgia focused on an alleged dispute between a so-called "party of peace" headed by Zurab Zhvania, who favored negotiation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and an alleged "party of war" that urged a more aggressive approach toward regional integration. "Georgia has lost a peacemaker," Razuvayev said.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.