Georgia's flamboyant reformer Kakha Bendukidze dies

Irakli Metreveli
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Georgian statesman Kakha Bendukidze,pictured in 2004, the architect of the ex-Soviet republic's liberal economic reforms who was advising Ukraine's new president, has died aged 58, officials said Friday

Georgian statesman Kakha Bendukidze,pictured in 2004, the architect of the ex-Soviet republic's liberal economic reforms who was advising Ukraine's new president, has died aged 58, officials said Friday (AFP Photo/Yuri Kadobnov)

Tbilisi (AFP) - Georgian statesman Kakha Bendukidze -- a top aide to Ukraine's president and a respected champion of economic reforms in his own ex-Soviet republic -- has died in London aged 58, supporters said on Friday.

British police said Bendukidze was pronounced dead on Thursday after being found lifeless in a London hotel. Although the cause of death has not yet been made public, the police said they were not treating his death as suspicious.

Bendukidze recently underwent minor cardiac surgery in Switzerland but was not showing any signs of serious illness, a colleague at the Free University in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Vato Lezhava, told AFP.

A respected reformer and fierce anti-corruption crusader who was Georgia's economy minister a decade ago, Bendukidze fled his home country this year.

He feared he might be arrested as have many other former top officials, in a campaign by current authorities that the West sees as politically motivated.

Since May, Bendukidze had been advising Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on ways to overhaul Ukraine's conflict-wracked economy.

"I express sincere condolences to relatives and loved ones of Kakha Bendukidze as well as millions of those for whom he was and will remain a force behind great changes. R.I.P," Poroshenko said on Twitter.

- 'Shocked and horrified' -

The news of Bendukidze's death stunned Georgia, with hundreds of people including students and professors lighting candles in his memory Thursday night.

Georgian lawmakers observed a minute of silence on Friday.

"I am shocked and horrified.... A statesman of historic importance has passed away," ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili wrote on Facebook.

Saakashvili said that Bendukidze had been negotiating to take up a "key government post" in Ukraine at the time of his death.

"He believed that by helping Ukraine he serves the Georgian cause."

Saakashvili's rule ended in 2012 when his party was defeated in parliamentary elections by a coalition assembled by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Georgia's former president said that, in London, Bendukidze had created "a group of lawyers as well as an organisation to fight Ivanishvili's regime".

For many across the former Communist empire, Bendukidze was a paragon of reformist hopes. In Russia's liberal circles he was seen as a symbol of lost opportunities.

"Bendukidze has saved one country -- Georgia," journalist Dmitry Butrin wrote in Russia's Kommersant business daily.

"He wanted to save at least one more country -- Ukraine -- and over the past months he had been doing everything in his power so that Ukrainians succeeded. He could have also saved us, Russia, if only it were possible to save us."

An intellectual known for his brutal honesty, Bendukidze was often called the author of Georgia's "economic miracle."

- 'Sell everything but conscience' -

A scientist before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Bendukidze made a fortune following its disintegration, and eventually became the chief of one of Russia's largest heavy engineering companies, OMZ.

He left business and returned to his native Georgia following its 2003 peaceful Rose Revolution to become economy minister in Saakashvili's government.

A likable, larger-than-life personality, he was a proponent of drastic reforms and compact government. He once said he hoped his economy ministry "will be abolished by 2007".

"Unlike most oligarchs, Kakha Bendukidze will not be remembered for the money he made but for the country he built," Fady Asly, chairman of the American-Georgian Chamber of Commerce, said on Twitter.

Bendukidze spearheaded sweeping reforms that saw Georgia become the world's top reformer in 2004-2007, according to the World Bank's "Doing Business" report.

Considered a libertarian, Bendukidze -- who advocated drastic tax cuts, deregulation, and all-out privatisation -- has famously said that the government "should sell everything except conscience".

He did not care what would be written in his obituaries, he said recently.

"What I am doing now is what matters to me."