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Georgia: Zhvania's Death Likely To Affect Balance Of Forces In Government

Zurab Zhvania Zurab Zhvania, the Georgian prime minister who died yesterday in an apparent gas poisoning accident, was generally viewed as a stabilizing element in the youthful team that took the reins of power 15 months ago. Some analysts believe his sudden death is likely to alter the balance of forces in the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili in favor of its more radical elements. But would that also affect Georgia’s policy toward its separatist republics?

Prague, 4 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In the hours that followed the news of Zhvania's death, Georgian officials worked hard to dismiss concerns the sudden loss of the government head would affect the work of the country's leadership.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a second emergency government meeting yesterday, Interior Minister Ivane Merabishvili attempted to project an air of calm.

"The Interior Ministry is continuing work at its usual pace," he said. "The situation in the country is under our control, and I would not advise criminal groups to grow bolder. Just today, 14 criminals were arrested in Tbilisi alone."

Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, State Minister for Economic Affairs Kakha Bendukidze, and Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili conveyed a similar message: Everything is business as usual.

But at an earlier emergency cabinet meeting, Saakashvili hinted at potential discord, as he solemnly called upon his ministers to remain united and "support each other."

Later in the day, at a memorial ceremony in Tbilisi's Holy Trinity Cathedral, Saakashvili said he would temporarily assume the leadership of the government and sent his team a strongly worded warning.
"It is very important that we stick to the normal pace of life and normal working practices, that we do not allow any breaches of discipline to occur." -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

"It is very important that we stick to the normal pace of life and normal working practices, that we do not allow any breaches of discipline to occur," he said. "I want to state categorically that everyone who will be found in breach of discipline will be held accountable in accordance with the existing regulations."

Georgian and foreign experts generally agree that Zhvania's death is likely to create a void in the Georgian leadership and that the absence of the prime minister may have far-reaching consequences for the cohesiveness of the ruling team.

Both Zhvania and Saakashvili had repeatedly said their team remained as closely knit as it had been at the time of President Eduard Shevardnadze's ouster 15 months ago.

But tensions arose last month (4 January), when Okruashvili publicly accused several Defense Ministry officials of embezzlement and demanded their immediate arrest.

The controversy was swiftly glossed over. But some of the officials targeted by Okruashvili had been appointed by Gela Bezhuashvili and Giorgi Baramidze, his two predecessors at the head of the Defense Ministry -- who were also proteges of Zhvania. This sparked speculation that there was infighting between so-called "radical" and "moderate" elements in the government.

Okruashvili -- an established hard-liner who belongs to Saakashvili's inner circle of friends -- took over the Defense Ministry from Baramidze as a result of last December's security shakeup that saw Merabishvili -- another close ally of the president -- obtain the Interior Ministry post.

A number of analysts suggest Okruashvili has set his sights on the premiership. Georgia's "Rezonansi" newspaper today included the defense minister in its list of potential successors to Zhvania.

Saakashvili's choice for Georgia's new head of government will be known within a week. "Rezonansi" suggested the president may nominate a person close to the late prime minister -- a choice that would reassure Georgia's neighbors and foreign partners that political continuity will be maintained. The daily added, however, that Zhvania's successor could prove little more than a transitional figure and that he -- or she -- could be replaced after a few months.

Ghia Nodia chairs the Tbilisi-based Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. In an interview with RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau chief Tamar Chikovani, Nodia yesterday said Zhvania's death could upset the current, healthy balance between the government's two main groups.

"It is true that this is what is generally expected," Nodia says. "And maybe this is what will happen. In any case, for those people that were considered close to Zhvania, their influence is likely to decrease. However, that does not mean that Zhvania's cadres will be purged. Those two teams used to be a single team before, and the fact that they eventually became two distinct groups is due to the fact that Zhvania was acting as a center of attraction. Now that this center of attraction is gone, members of this group will exist as mere individuals because I don't think there is among them a single figure capable of maintaining the unity of the team.”

Zhvania's death has sparked concerns among South Ossetian and Abkhaz leaders, who suspect Saakashvili may resort to military force in order to restore Georgia's territorial integrity.

There are particular worries in South Ossetia about Okruashvili, whom separatists blame for triggering a series of armed clashes last summer while he was interior minister.

Concerns about the consequences of Zhvania's death have also been heard in Russia, which supports both secessionist governments.

The chairman of the Russian Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, yesterday said he feared a possible resumption of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatist wars of the early 1990s.

"I met with President Saakashvili last week in Strasbourg, and in the course of the private meeting we had together, he once again assured me he was determined to solve these conflicts through political, and not military, means," Kosachev said. "But how autonomous he is in his intentions, or to what extent he is under the influence of the hawks that we know for sure exist in his entourage -- we know them all -- remains to be seen.”

But Nodia says Zhvania's death is unlikely to substantially affect Georgia's approach in solving its separatist conflicts -- especially that with South Ossetia.

"I don't think there will be any particular problems on this issue because both sides have always been aware of this kind of traditional game between the 'good cop' and the 'bad cop' in which Saakashvili would issue radical statements and Zhvania follow up with some conciliatory steps," Nodia says. "This is how it worked with [Ajar leader] Aslan Abashidze, and this is the way it's working now with [South Ossetian leader Eduard] Kokoity."

Nodia says in this way, too, Zhvania's death is likely to create a void that will be difficult to fill.

"It will be relatively hard for Saakashvili to find a political figure with whom he can have the same distribution of tasks as he had with Zhvania," Nodia concludes.