Looking unusually pale, his voice trembling with emotion, Saakashvili said the loss of Zurab Zhvania was a major blow to Georgia.
"This is a major blow to our country, and to me personally, both as president and as a man, just as it is probably to all of you. With Zurab Zhvania, Georgia lost a great patriot, who had tirelessly dedicated his entire life to serving his country. I lost my closest friend, my most trusted adviser, and my greatest ally," Saakashvili said.
The 41-year-old Zhvania was a key element of the youthful team of Georgian leaders that took over from president Eduard Shevardnadze 15 months ago.
Following Shevardnadze's resignation in November 2003, Zhvania became the No. 2 figure in the triumvirate that took over the reins of power.
In February 2004, Saakashvili offered him the newly created post of prime minister with broad powers over the economy and the upcoming privatization program.
Pushing For Peace
Zhvania was not only involved in domestic issues. He was also a key element in Georgia's attempts at restoring control over its two separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Following last summer's armed clashes in South Ossetia, Zhvania initiated direct peace talks with separatist leader Eduard Kokoity.
The South Ossetian government today expressed its regret over Zhvania's death. Boris Chochiev, South Ossetia's chief negotiator with Georgia, told Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency that "Zhvania represented that part of the Georgian leadership which we can describe as 'the party of peace.'"
Chochiev, in particular, credited the late Georgian prime minister for putting an end to last summer's tensions, saying, "We were convinced that, unlike others, he was in favor of a peaceful resolution of the [Georgian-South Ossetian] conflict."
Hard To Replace
In Russia, too, some politicians expressed concern over the possible consequences of Zhvania's death.
For Konstantin Zatulin, a pro-government member of Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, Zhvania was a "predictable" politician. He said Zhvania's death may affect Tbilisi's relations with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The South Ossetian leadership has blamed last summer's armed clashes on Saakashvili and then Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili. It was on Saakashvili's orders and under Okruashvili's supervision that troops entered South Ossetia last June, officially to combat smuggling gangs active in the region. The operation eventually triggered armed clashes with South Ossetian forces, bringing both sides to the verge of war.
Georgian media have in recent weeks speculated about growing disagreements between Okruashvili -- who was appointed defense minister in December 2004 -- and Zhvania's allies in the cabinet.
As evidence to reports of infighting, the Tbilisi-based "Rezonansi" daily last month cited Okruashvili's recent accusations of corruption launched against top army officials who had been appointed at the time that Giorgi Baramidze, a close associate of Zhvania, was defense minister.
As if he foresaw further problems among his team, Saakashvili today urged government members to remain united and "support each other."
"At this difficult time for both the country and for us -- and for me personally -- I would like to urge you all to remain firm and persevering. At this difficult time for the Georgian government, you can render no greater service to the country than to remain loyal servants to your country, to Georgia, to our people. That is what Zurab Zhvania devoted his entire life to and that is your most sacred duty. However difficult it may be, we must continue to serve our country, Georgia, every minute of our life and up until the end," Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili's press adviser Medea Akhalkatsi later said that, according to the constitution, the president has seven days to nominate a new prime minister and ask parliament to approve his choice.
Denying earlier announcements that Baramidze -- now a deputy prime minister and a state minister in charge of Georgia's European integration -- will be appointed caretaker prime minister, Saakashvili said today he will temporarily chair the government.