Georgia Prime Minister Found Dead; President Assumes Functions

TBILISI (Reuters/RFE/RL)–The prime minister of ex-Soviet Georgia was found dead on Thursday in a bizarre gas poisoning that robs the inexperienced president–Mikhail Saakashvili–of a steadying hand to help run his turbulent country.

Saakashvili said he was taking over the functions of Zurab Zhvania–one of the few heavyweights in his reformist leadership who will be hard to replace. It was not clear if this was a temporary move or not.

Zhvania’s bodyguards found the 41-year-old slumped in an armchair near a gas heater at a friend’s apartment–said Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili. "This is a tragic accident … It was a gas poisoning," he said.

Zhvania was the senior figure in a trio of leaders who spearheaded a "Rose Revolution" of street protests that toppled veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003 and then installed the West-leaning Saakashvili in power.

The president’s decision to name himself as a caretaker prime minister underscored the scarcity of suitable candidates to succeed Zhvania in the country of 5 million people.

"As president I am taking over leadership of executive power. I am ordering the government to return to work," he told a crowd outside Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity cathedral where Zhvania’s funeral is to be held.

"[Zhvania’s death] is a huge blow for our country and personally for me as a president and as a person," a red-eyed Saakashvili earlier told ministers at an emergency meeting–many of them dressed in black–his own voice breaking with emotion.

"I have lost my closest friend–my most loyal adviser–my biggest ally."

"Zurab Zhvania made a great contribution to the state-building and strengthening of democracy in brotherly Georgia," Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian said in a letter to his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili. "Also invaluable was his role in the deepening of the centuries-old friendship between our peoples."

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian–meanwhile–canceled a planned visit to Tbilisi where he was due to attend a major international conference on the South Caucasus. He was scheduled to meet with the Georgian premier late on Thursday. Oskanian was on his way to the Georgian capital when he heard news of Zhvania’s bizarre death.

"Words are not enough to express the depth of the loss," he said in a statement. "Our effective cooperation with Zhvania has a long history. "Being a broad-minded politician–Zhvania distinguished himself with in-depth knowledge of regional developmen’s and prospects."

In response to an inquiry about his ethnic origin–Zhvania–declared in the Georgian parliament a year ago "Yes–my mother is Armenian and I’m proud of that."

NO EVIDENCE OF FOUL PLAY

Zhvania’s body was found at 4:30 a.m. (0130 GMT) when his guards–worried that he was not answering his mobile phone–broke down the door of the friend’s apartment–said Merabishvili. The friend–a middle-ranking official–also died.

There was no evidence of foul play–forensic experts said. Tests showed Zhvania’s blood contained fatal levels of a substance called carboxihaemoglobin–said Justice Ministry official Levan Samkharauli.

"That means that the cause of death was carbon monoxide gas," he said. A post mortem report is expected on Friday.

Zhvania was widely seen as a moderating influence on Saakashvili–a 37-year-old US-trained lawyer who is prone to emotional outbursts and provoking confrontation.

On occasions when Saakashvili’s relations with Moscow or separatist regimes broke down–Zhvania was able to act as a go-between. He was also an able back-room organizer in a cabinet with little experience of the machinery of government.

"(Zhvania) was a very important figure in the leadership who was helping the government to work as a team," a close aide–who did not want to be named–told Reuters.

Under Georgian law–the president has seven days to announce a full-time replacement for Zhvania. The candidate must then be approved by parliament–which is dominated by Saakashvili supporters.

Zhvania is survived by a wife and three children.

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