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Georgian Prime Minister Dies

Zurab Zhvania, who died at the age of 41 in the early hours of 3 February, reportedly of gas poisoning, was one of Georgia's most urbane, intelligent, astute and experienced politicians.

Born on 9 December 1963, Zhvania studied biology at Tbilisi State University, graduating in 1985. In the late 1980s, when then CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of liberalization gave the green light for the emergence of informal political organizations across the Soviet Union, Zhvania founded Georgia's Green Party, and in late 1992 he was elected to the country's first post-Soviet parliament. It was in his capacity as a young and eloquent parliament deputy that Zhvania first came to the notice of then parliament chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, who catapulted Zhvania to the chairmanship of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), the political party Shevardnadze created as his personal power base in 1993.

Following the parliamentary elections in 1995, in which the SMK won an absolute majority, Zhvania as head of the SMK became parliament chairman, the de facto second most influential post in the country. Within a couple of years, many observers concluded that Shevardnadze was grooming Zhvania to succeed him as president.

But the period of close political cooperation between Zhvania and Shevardnadze proved to be comparatively short-lived. In July 1998, Zhvania warned that corruption and the government's failure to implement systemic reform had brought the country to "the edge of the abyss." "The fact that laws are not implemented has generated a lack of popular trust in the leadership," he told a meeting of Georgia's NGOs.

Zhvania threatened to resign and take on the role of "constructive opposition" within parliament unless radical measures were adopted to kick start reform. Six week later, in late August, the SMK parliament faction elected as its chairman U.S.-trained lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili, a Zhvania protege. Over the next few years, the two men took an increasingly tougher stand on Shevardnadze's apparent unwillingness to implement a drastic crackdown on corruption, which they perceived as hindering economic revival and tarnishing Georgia's international reputation. They also took a far more radical position than did Shevardnadze on the issue of relations with Russia.

In late 2000 and early 2001 Zhvania and Shevardnadze both repeatedly denied persistent rumors of tensions between them, but those tensions between the president and the would-be young reformers within the SMK came to a head in November 2001 when, faced by mass popular protests over a crackdown on the popular independent television station Rustavi-2, Shevardnadze outmaneuvered Zhvania and forced his resignation.

Even before that, the SMK had split into rival factions, but it was not until May 2002, when he was refused registration as a candidate in local elections, that Zhvania definitively broke with that party and formed the United Democrats parliament faction, which was headed by another close Zhvania associate, Giorgi Baramidze. In November 2002, Zhvania announced that he planned to run in the presidential elections due in 2005 when Shevardnadze's second presidential term was set to expire.

Despite his close ties with Saakashvili, Zhvania was reluctant to align closely with him: the newspaper "Akhali versia" on 4 February 2002 quoted Zhvania as criticizing what he termed Saakashvili's "excessive radicalism." In the run-up to the 2 November 2003 parliamentary elections, Zhvania's United Democrats forged an election alliance not with Saakashvili's National Movement but with the eponymous political bloc formed by Zhvania's successor as parliament speaker, Nino Burdjanadze.

When the election bloc cobbled together by Shevardnadze to replace the SMK set about manipulating the election returns, Zhvania, Burdjanadze and Saakashvili joined forces to mobilize popular protest. Initially their objectives differed: Burdjanadze and Zhvania, who was on record as telling "Akhali versia" that "I hate all revolutions," wanted the election returns invalidated and new elections held, whereas Saakashvili demanded that the authorities acknowledge his bloc as the winner.

Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November paved the way for a division of power in which Saakashvili ran for, and won, the presidency, and then named Zhvania to the reintroduced post of prime minister and Burdjanadze as parliament speaker. In that post, Zhvania demonstrated his authority as a statesman, seeking to ensure that the government functioned as a cohesive team, and conducting difficult negotiations in August and November 2004 to defuse tensions between Tbilisi and the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. Opinion polls consistently listed Zhvania among the most intelligent and intellectual political figures in Georgia, but not as one of the most popular or the most trusted. Rumors of his involvement in questionable business activities were never substantiated, nor is it clear whether economic factors were behind the periodic alarms, most recently in August 2003, that he was a possible assassination target, or his uncompromising criticism of Moscow's policy towards Georgia.

Those rumors may fuel speculation about the somewhat bizarre circumstances of his death.

Speaking on 3 February, a clearly shaken Saakashvili paid tribute to Zhvania as a close friend and trusted political adviser. His loss will be felt the more acutely in that there is no figure of comparable political stature, authority and ability to replace him.

(RFE/RL 04.ii.05)

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