In a strident speech delivered at Zhvania's funeral service in Tbilisi's Holy Trinity Cathedral on February 6, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili lashed out at the country's "enemies," swearing that anyone who believed Zvania's death would alter the government's reform course "would be very much mistaken."
"I want to tell our enemies: do not hope that we will fail. Zurab Zhvania has died, but we are still alive. Do not hope that we will fail to finish what we started," Saakashvili said.
Calling the prime minister's death a critical "test" for the country, Saakashvili declared that the fact that Georgia is now a state "is possible, more than anything, thanks to Zurab Zhvania."
Unity in the face of crisis has become a recurring theme for government officials since the death of the 41-year-old Zhvania, an architect of the 2003 Rose Revolution and one of the country's most experienced political leaders. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We will show the world that we can stand together in times of tragedy," Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, another Rose Revolution leader, told mourners. Zhvania's 1999 declaration at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that "I am Georgian and, therefore, I am European" provided "brilliant" proof of Georgia's "democratic aspirations," Burjanadze added.
Zhvania died on February 3, from carbon-monoxide poisoning caused by a malfunctioning gas heater in the Tbilisi apartment of an employee of the state chancellery, Raul Usupov.
The 25-year-old Usupov, who had recently been named deputy governor of Kvemo-Kartli Region, also died from the gas leak, according to officials. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. President Saakashvili declared February 5-6 official days of mourning for both Zhvania and three policemen killed by a car bomb in the nearby city of Gori on February 1. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The lack of answers to many questions surrounding not only Zhvania's death, but also the Gori blast has prompted speculation about possible conspiracies. In an effort to quell the speculation, the Georgian government is welcoming the pending arrival of a US Federal Bureau of Investigation team, which will assist in the probes into Zhvania's death and the car-bombing.
Two days before Zhvania's funeral, an adviser to the presidential administration's State Clemency Commission died in a hunting rifle incident that officials are terming suicide. Giorgi Khelashvili, 32, had been a member of Zhvania's United-Democrats party and was listed as one of the party's candidates for parliament in the 2004 elections. Reports differ as to whether Khelashvili had ever known Zhvania. On February 5, however, citing a note Khelashvili had left asking his family for forgiveness, officials declared that the father of two had committed suicide for "personal reasons" unrelated to Zhvania's death.
Meanwhile, even as officials maintain that Zhvania's death was accidental, efforts to reconstruct his last hours and explain his presence in Usupov's apartment are ongoing. According to Deputy General Prosecutor Giorgi Janashia, the prime minister allegedly received a call on his cell phone at approximately 1:20 AM on February 3, some three hours before his official time of death. A search for the caller, as yet unnamed, is currently underway.
Interior Ministry officials have interrogated the prime minister's bodyguards as well as the former head of Zhvania's security service, Koba Karsivadze, Rustavi-2 reported on February 3. Vasil Maghlaferidze, a majority member of parliament, has also been questioned about earlier statements he made that Usupov had said he wished to speak to the prime minister.
But mourners at the prime minister's funeral had little desire to discuss the particulars of the investigation. Hundreds of people, ranging from ordinary citizens to cabinet members, filed past Zhvania's open casket during a roughly five-hour-long funeral ceremony. Sobbing openly, Zhvania's wife, Nino, and two of his three children stood to one side, flanked by State Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze, a close Zhvania ally and former defense minister.
Zhvania "was always the first," Georgian Patriarch Ilya II declared, as Saakashvili nodded agreement. "The first in doing good things, the first to think, and now again, he is the first -- the first government official to have a funeral in this cathedral."
Amidst complete silence, a procession of a few hundred mourners, some carrying single roses as a tribute to Zhvania's role in the 2003 Rose Revolution, later followed the coffin and honor guard down Tbilisi's central Rustaveli Avenue en route to the prime minister's grave in Didube Cemetery.
"It's impossible to put into words what this day means for Georgia," commented one sidewalk bookseller, shaking her head sadly as the cross-crested station wagon bearing Zhvania's coffin passed through downtown Tbilisi. "It's an incredible tragedy. He was a capable, strong leader for so long."
But like many Georgians, the bookseller, who gave her name as Isolde, put little faith in the government's official explanation that Zhvania's death was a "tragic accident."
"That's the sort of excuse that children use when they're trying to trick you," she said. "But we're not children."
Some Georgian newspapers continue to take issue with the government's official line of inquiry into the prime minister's death as an "accident."
"Georgian law enforcers have not even mentioned once, that along with the version of a tragic accident, they are probing other possible versions as well," the daily 24 Hours wrote on February 5. Meanwhile, the daily Rezonansi pondered "Was there a third person in [Raul] Usupov's apartment?"
The Russian press has also played a role. On February 5, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili took issue with a report from the Russian news agency RIA- Novosti that cited an unnamed source from the Georgian General Prosecutor's office as saying that Zhvania's bodyguards had failed to follow standard procedures and check the gas heater in Usupov's apartment 30 minutes prior to the prime minister's arrival and routinely calling the prime minister during his visit. Merabishvili dismissed both reports as inaccurate.
Meanwhile, speculation continues apace over the name of the president's nominee for prime minister, to be announced no later than February 10. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Speaking with reporters on February 4, State Minister for Economic Reform Kakha Bendukidze rejected any possibility that he could be in the running for the post. "I don't know to whose team I belong," Bendukidze said. "I know my business and I'm doing it."
Burjanadze, another oft-cited contender, has echoed that message. "There are no teams in the Georgian government," she told reporters on February 4. "[W]hoever the prime minister is he will be an honorable person."
Delegations from some 17 countries and various international organizations traveled to Tbilisi to attend Zhvania's funeral. At a news briefing, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and head of the US delegation, called the late prime minister "a sober force for democratic change" in Georgia and pledged ongoing US support for the Saakashvili administration.
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets regional news coordinator in Tbilisi.