The search for a replacement for Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who died February 3 of carbon-monoxide poisoning, is underway. Political analysts in Tbilisi say there is "no obvious candidate" that can match Zhvania's technocratic skills.
President Mikheil Saakashvili is expected to nominate a replacement for prime minister by February 10. A state funeral for Zhvania will be held at the newly constructed Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi on February 6. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Saakashvili's cabinet, meeting in a late-night session February 3, reportedly considered several prime ministerial candidates, the Civil Georgia website reported. While most political figures continue to emphasize the difficulty of replacing the prime minister, some Georgian media outlets have speculated on the leading contenders. In its February 4 edition, for example, the daily Rezonansi reported that the top candidates to head the government included Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, State Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze, State Minister for Economic Reform Issues Kakha Bendukidze and Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze.
Few analysts in Tbilisi appeared to put much faith in such reports. "You can't take the stupid speculations of the Georgian media seriously," said Levan Ramishvili, director of the Liberty Institute. Ramishvili also dismissed reports of a potential cabinet split prior to Zhvania's death.
Ramishvili is just one of many political analysts in Tbilisi who emphasize that Georgia lacks a natural successor to Zhvania, who possessed the most political and administrative experience of any member of Saakashvili's reformist administration.
Devi Khechinashvili, president of the Partnership for Social Initiatives, a public policy think tank, contended that one government leader who could at least replicate Zhvania's independence is Bendukidze, who oversees economic reforms. An influential businessman, Bendukidze returned last year to his native Georgia after nearly a decade in Russia. During his tenure in 2004 as economics minister, Bendukidze's proved an effective policy planner, but his advocacy of an aggressive privatization campaign generated considerable controversy. "He has no network here, he is a guy by himself, he has power by himself, and he can push things through, but he will have no political ambitions," said Khechinashvili.
Georgian newspaper reports have also focused on Defense Minister Okruashvili as a leading candidate to replace Zhvania. Though Khechinashvili agreed that Okruashvili's close ties to the president could enhance his chances, he expressed doubt that the 31-year-old defense minister, often portrayed as the most radical member of the Saakashvili administration, would accept the post of prime minister if nominated.
"His [current] position is very powerful, and he is concentrated on a main priority of this government [modernization of the military according to North Atlantic Treaty Organization norms]. So what is the rationale [for him] to deal with social or economic issues right now?" Khechinashvili said. "It is much easier to upgrade the military than it is the social sphere or economy."
Ultimately, how the government navigates the transfer of power to a new prime minister will prove critical to the reform process, both analysts said. The most immediate impact of Zhvania's death will be on the speed of reforms, Ramishvili said. "We have to revise the division of powers between the president and the prime minister. The president will have to take on more strategic and tactical responsibilities to make sure that the government continues on with reforms," Ramishvili said. With Zhvania gone, the powers of the ruling party could become more concentrated, added Khechinashvili, but how that will affect the quality of reforms is unknown.
With the country still in shock over Zhvania's passing, government leaders remain intent on projecting an image of stability. Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili announced that she, along with Saakashvili, who has assumed much of Zhvania's responsibilities on an interim basis, would fulfill all of Zhvania's scheduled appointments in the coming days, the Russian agency Regnum.ru reported. Top government ministers, meanwhile, stressed in televised statements that key political and economic policies would not change.
Authorities also sought to reassure Georgians that Zhvania's death was accidental. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has agreed to help Georgian investigators, and will perform "biological and chemical tests" to determine "the exact cause" of Zhvania's death, Rustavi-2 television channel reported February 4.
The circumstances surrounding Zhvania's death have prompted various conspiracy theories among Georgians. For example, as news of Zhvania's death was still spreading, Alexander Shalamberidze, a member of parliament, claimed publicly that Russia was behind both the recent car-bombing in Gori and Zhvania's death, and that the two events were linked. Russian diplomats have adamantly denied involvement in the two incidents. Meanwhile, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and General Prosecutor Zurab Adeishvili dismissed rumors of foul play.
To downplay speculation about the cause of Zhvania's death, Merabishvili and Adeishvili showed Georgian journalists late February 3 a one-minute video tape with footage from the apartment where Zhvania and his friend, Raul Usupov, the deputy governor of the Kvemo Kartli region, were found. Both men were shown stretched out on the floor of Usupov's apartment after artificial respiration had been unsuccessfully performed, the Civil Georgia website reported.
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNet.orgs regional news coordinator in Tbilisi.