TBILISI, Georgia – Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania (search), who helped lead Georgia's revolution that toppled the corruption-tainted regime of Eduard Shevardnadze (search), died early Thursday in a friend's apartment from what officials claimed was an accidental gas leak from a heater.
Georgia's interior minister said there was no reason to suspect foul play, but a lawmaker reportedly pointed the finger at "outside forces." His remarks were aimed at Russia, which has ties with Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and prompted a terse response from Moscow.
The lawmaker, Alexander Shalamberidze, noted that the death of Zhvania, 41, came days after a car bombing that killed three policemen in Gori, the city nearest to South Ossetia. Zhvania, considered a moderate influence in the government of this former Soviet republic, had been trying to negotiate settlements with the separatist regions.
"The explosion in Gori and Zhvania's death have dealt strong blows to our state. Now our neighbors are going to take advantage of that, they are saying we are almost savages living in the cold," Shalamberidze said.
Asked whom he meant, he replied: "Russia. They are trying to prevent Georgia from getting stronger. The entire Russian diplomatic activity regarding our country confirms that."
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, asked about the lawmaker's allegation, responded: "The statements of those who rush to make judgments ... will remain on their consciences."
Zhvania was a key ally of President Mikhail Saakashvili in leading the November 2003 protests against election fraud that came to be known as the "Rose Revolution." The demonstrations drove Shevardnadze to resign.
The prosecutor-general's office said an investigation into Zhvania's death had been opened and an autopsy was under way.
Georgia has a history of political intrigue that sometimes turns violent.
In addition to the talks with the separatists, Zhvania was trying to crack down on corruption and crime.
The prime minister was visiting the Tbilisi apartment of his friend, Zurab Usupov, deputy governor of the Kvemo-Kartli region, who also died, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said on Rustavi-2 television.
Zhvania arrived at the apartment about midnight Wednesday, and when his security guards heard no signs of life about four hours later, they broke in through a window, Merabishvili said.
"It is an accident," Merabishvili said. "We can say that poisoning by gas took place."
A gas-fired heating stove was in the main room of the apartment, where a table was set up with a backgammon set lying open upon it. Zhvania was in a chair; Usupov's body was found in the kitchen. Police gave no other details.
Hundreds of Georgians, many with tears in their eyes, gathered Thursday outside the home of Zhvania's mother in central Tbilisi, where a wooden coffin with his body was delivered. A funeral was planned for Sunday.
Later, at St. Trinity Cathedral, Saakashvili and several top ministers met with Georgian Patriarch Ilya II and lit candles in Zhvania's memory. Speaking outside, a visibly shaken president urged people to remain calm.
"I assume control over the executive branch and I call on members of the Cabinet to return to work and to continue their work as normal," Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili created the post of prime minister shortly after his election in January 2004, and he nominated Zhvania for the job.
Some critics said at the time that creating the post was essentially a move to satisfy the ambitions of Zhvania, whose joining with Saakashvili in the protests was seen as partly a marriage of convenience.
In Georgia, the president wields most of the authority. The prime minister is approved by parliament and names a government, but the president has the power to name the ministers of defense, security and the interior.
On the day before his death, Zhvania had urged Georgians to hold back from suspecting South Ossetian involvement in the car-bombing in Gori.
Zhvania's government also was working to overcome Georgia's endemic corruption, which had enriched some Shevardnadze-era officials while the economy deteriorated.
Levan Chichua, a top official in Georgia's National Bureau of Forensic Medicine, said there were no signs of violence and that preliminary examination showed both died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Deputy Prosecutor-General Georgy Dzhanashia said the heater was installed "with serious technical violations ... there was no ventilation in the apartment."
Central heating is scarce in Georgia. Many people rely on gas or wood stoves in their homes and fatal accidents are often reported.
At an emergency Cabinet meeting earlier in the day, Saakashvili said Zhvania's death was a personal blow.
"Georgia has lost a great patriot, who devoted his entire life to serving the motherland," Saakashvili said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram of condolence to Saakashvili, which said Zhvania "was well known in Russia as a supporter of the development of friendly, good-neighborly relations between the Russian and Georgian peoples."
A minister in South Ossetia's separatist government, Boris Chochiyev, expressed shock.
Zhvania was "among the Georgian politicians who favored a peaceful settlement of the conflict. I can say that he represented the party of peace," Chochiyev told The Associated Press.
Zhvania is survived by his wife and three children.