Obituary: Zurab Zhvania

Prime Minister of Georgia

FOR THE past turbulent decade in Georgian politics, Zurab Zhvania was a permanent and reliable central fixture, nurtured and promoted by the veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze.

By the time Zhvania had started to distance himself from the corrupt Shevardnadze and his circle, his ambitions to succeed him as President were trounced by the more charismatic and impulsive Mikheil Saakashvili. But no government would be complete without Zhvania, who ended up as Prime Minister. His early death - apparently from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas heater - robs the Saakashvili government of a stabilising influence.

Born of Georgian and Armenian ancestry into a family of physicists in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Zhvania grew up surrounded by science. In 1980, after leaving school, he entered the biology faculty of the prestigious Tbilisi State University. There he initiated a student laboratory where all the research work was carried out by students, something unknown in the hierarchical world of Soviet scientific research. His lecturers regarded him as a student of great promise and expected him to make science his lifelong career.

After graduation in 1985, he worked in the laboratory of the university's human and animal physiology faculty. But he was increasingly interested in wider work in society. Supported by well-known scientists, he joined with other gifted young people to found the Ecological Association to work within Soviet restrictions for greater environmental protection in Georgia.

But as ideological controls started to loosen and environmental activists could - if they wished - show their true colours as surrogate politicians, Zhvania left his scientific colleagues behind and founded in 1988 a political party, the Georgian Greens. He was unanimously elected party chairman.

His political breakthrough came in the elections of October 1992, contested by more than 50 political parties and blocs. Zhvania abandoned his scientific work on entering parliament in the election, where his Green Party - seen as the party of young intellectuals - was transformed into an influential parliamentary faction. Zhvania was soon elected as co-secretary of the European Greens.

As Zhvania's political career began to take off in Georgia's volatile immediate post-independence years, he backed the Soviet-era leader Shevardnadze as he rebuilt a power-base in the wake of his return to power. In 1993 Zhvania accepted Shevardnadze's invitation to join him as secretary-general of the newly founded party, the Citizens' Union of Georgia, a disparate alliance united around Shevardnadze's only policy: pragmatism. Zhvania hoped to push the party in a pro-democratic direction.

In November 1995, after the party won a convincing victory in the elections, Zhvania was elected speaker of parliament. He was now at the heart of the regime. It was he who persuaded Saakashvili to return from a promising legal career in the United States to commit himself to Georgia's future.

Despite Zhvania's growing concern over the corruption and stagnation of the Shevardnadze regime, which he voiced from 1998, he stuck with the President until November 2001, when he resigned as speaker. In 2002 he founded and became chairman of the United Democrats. He was soon joined by his successor as parliamentary speaker, Nino Burjanadze.

Ahead of the November 1993 parliamentary elections, Zhvania characterised the political choice facing Georgia as one between "a European way of development" or "another form of Soviet nostalgia". When they teamed up with the more charismatic Saakashvili in the wake of the rigged electoral outcome, the gang of three was unstoppable in a country weary of lawlessness, poverty, stagnation and corruption.

Following the ousting of Shevardnadze and his circle amid street revolts in Tbilisi, Zhvania became State Minister, retaining the renamed post of Prime Minister from February 2004 despite increasing tensions with Saakashvili.

A relative moderate over Georgia's decade-old struggles to regain control over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, unlike many in Georgia Zhvania was less inclined automatically to blame Russia for the conflicts and other ills that befell the country.

He never lost his image as an urban intellectual, so different from the ruthless, hard men who dominated Georgian politics. Amid all the machinations of a volatile political system, he tried to hold fast to his vision of an open, liberal and forward-looking Georgia, based on principles of civic nationalism.

Although largely unsuccessful in ensuring that such a vision became reality under Shevardnadze, Zhvania hoped for the transformation of his country under Saakashvili.

Zurab Zhvania, politician: born Tbilisi, Soviet Union 9 December 1963; State Minister of Georgia 2003-04, Prime Minister 2004-05; married 1993 Nino Kadagidze (one son, two daughters); died Tbilisi, Georgia 3 February 2005.

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