TBILISI, Georgia – Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who helped lead the revolution that toppled the corruption-tainted regime of Eduard Shevardnadze, was killed Thursday by an apparent natural gas leak, the ex-Soviet republic’s interior minister said.
Zhvania, 41, was at a friend’s apartment when the leak occurred, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said in a television broadcast.
“It is an accident,” Merabishvili said. “We can say that poisoning by gas took place.”
Security guards broke through a window early Thursday when they heard no signs of life inside the apartment several hours after the prime minister arrived, Merabishvili said. Zhvania’s host, Zurab Usupov, deputy governor of Georgia’s Kvemo-Kartli region, also died.
An Iranian-made gas-powered heating stove was in the main room of the mezzanine-floor apartment, where a table was set up with a backgammon set lying open. Zhvania was in a chair; Usupov’s body was found in the kitchen. Security guards tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate the prime minister, Merabishvili said.
Levan Chichua, a senior official in Georgia’s National Bureau of Forensic Medicine, said there were no signs of violence and that preliminary data from tests showed that both men died from gas poisoning.
Central heating is scarce in Georgia, and many people use gas or wood stoves in their homes.
President Mikhail Saakashvili convened an emergency Cabinet meeting following Zhavania’s death. It began with a moment of silence.
“In Zurab Zhvania, 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. I lost a very close friend, a reliable adviser and a great ally,” Saakashvili said.
Radio Imedi reported that Saakashvili named Vice-Premier David Baramidze as acting prime minister, citing government chief of staff Petre Mamradze.
Baramidze was defense minister until a December shakeup in which Saakashvili made him vice-premier and put him in charge of helping the small former Soviet republic integrate into NATO (news – web sites), the European Union (news – web sites) and other European organizations.
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 longtime politician, Zhvania was part of the opposition to Shevardnadze’s government and played a prominent role in protests that led to its ouster after allegedly fraudulent elections in November 2003.
Saakashvili, who led the protests, named Zhvania prime minister following his landslide election in January 2004. Zhvania was considered a moderate to counterbalance the more impetuous president, and he was one of the key government figures trying to negotiate settlements with Georgia’s separatist regions.
Zhvania was born in the capital Tbilisi on Dec. 9, 1963. A graduate of the biology department at Tbilisi State University, he led the Green of Georgia party from 1988-93 and served in the parliament beginning in 1992.
He became parliamentary speaker in 1995 and led the moderate United Democrats opposition party. For several years he and Saakashvili were rivals for leadership of the opposition.
Like Saakashvili, Zhvania was a one-time ally of Shevardnadze. After breaking with Shevardnadze, however, Zhvania followed a more conciliatory path than Saakashvili, and he was considered a more moderate politician who sought consensus rather than conflict.
Zhvania is survived by his wife and three children.