Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's untimely death deals a severe blow to Georgia's reform process. Political analysts have expressed concern that the loss of Zhvania's political and administrative skills will damage the Georgian's government's cohesiveness and diminish its policy-implementation ability.
Seeking to keep potential disruption to a minimum, President Mikheil Saakashvili moved quickly to fill the political void, announcing February 3 that he would assume Zhvania's duties on an interim basis. "I, as the President of Georgia, will assume the leadership of the executive authorities," Saakashvili said.
"It is very important to maintain order and discipline in the country. I want to warn everybody that all those who violate order and discipline will be answerable before the law," Saakashvili continued. "We fully control the situation, we are a strong state, we are a strong nation and we will manage to resolve [our] problems."
The heads of various ministries also attempted to project a sense of stability, stressing on February 3 that the government was operating normally. For example, State Minister for Economic Reforms Kakha Bendukidze emphasized during a news conference that economic policy would continue. "All the plans regarding the further liberalization of the economy will be carried out," he said.
Georgian law gives Saakashvili seven days to name a new prime minister. The nominated prime minister will then have ten days to assemble a new cabinet, which will then be presented to parliament for approval.
Finding a suitable replacement will prove a major challenge for the Saakashvili administration, observers say. "Zhvania was really running the country and implementing policies and it's very hard to find someone who can be a political heavyweight and function in the same [manner]," said Ghia Nodia, director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development.
While Saakashvili brought charisma to the reform movement that swept into power following the 2003 Rose Revolution, he relied heavily on Zhvania to supply the administrative details. "I don't think there will be a change in policy because Saakashvili was still the main person who defined policy," Nodia said. "But the quality of implementation is the major concern in this case."
The new prime minister, Nodia added, will not have the same political clout that Zhvania had. "There will be a prime minister, but a much politically weaker prime minister," Nodia said.
Legal and political expert David Usupashvili suggested that Saakashvili had a special political relationship with Zhvania that will be virtually impossible to duplicate. "The individual functions between the president and the prime minister were in many ways the result of a political agreement between these two politicians," said Usupashvili, who was one of the critics of the 2004 revisions to the Georgian constitution that amplified the president's powers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "It will be very difficult for Saakashvili to find a replacement who could fit in this model, which was designed for two concrete politicians."
Since Saakashvili's administration came to power in January 2004, it has pursued an ambitious program designed to erase Georgia's chaotic post-Soviet legacy. The government has aggressively pursued efforts to reintegrate the country and root out corruption. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, the government has acted to change Georgia's geopolitical course, breaking away from Russia's sphere of influence and seeking to join Western economic and security structures. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Zhvania had been a high-profile figure in Georgia's privatization process, especially in the state's sale of "strategic" properties. Outside observers had questioned the responsibility taken on by Zhvania, but in an earlier interview with EurasiaNet, First Deputy Economy Minister Natia Turnava described the prime minister's role as "critical" to the potential success of the privatization process. On January 31, the prime minister announced the sale of the Georgian Ocean Shipping Company to Armstrong Holdings Corp. for $161 million. The announcement came one day after he had mistakenly named another company, the British-Australian firm ASP Ship Management, as the buyer.
Zhvania's also exerted considerable influence in Georgia's longstanding tussles with the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The prime minister was widely seen in Georgia as heading a "party of peace," favoring a gradual reconciliation policy with the separatist territories. In pursuing a go-slow approach, Zhvania had faced opposition from cabinet "hawks," including recently named Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who, in his previous capacity as interior minister, led Georgian troops into an ultimately unsuccessful foray into South Ossetia in August 2004. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"He [Zhvania] spared no efforts to cease the Georgian aggression in the summer of 2004," South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoiti said in a press statement. "We hope that his death will not affect the process of [peace] talks."
Without Zhvania, noted Usupashvili, the "balancing act" between ministers who owed their political loyalties to Saakashvili and Zhvania will be harder to maintain. That conflict most recently came to light in December, when State Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze, a Zhvania protégé and former defense minister, publicly sparred with Okruashvili, a Saakashvili protégé. Okruashvili recently replaced Baramidze as defense minister amid an investigation of reported corruption within the Defense Ministry.
"Zhvania's group and Saakashvili's group had some internal intrigues and checks and balances," Usupashvili said. "I don't think anyone can replace Zhvania as the leader of Zhvania's political group."
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNet.orgs regional news coordinator in Tbilisi.