EDUARD SHEVARDNADZE

Silver Fox of Georgia

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Eduard Shevardnadze at his home in Tbilisi in September 2010. Photo: Daro Sulakauri/Bloomberg

James Baker, former U.S. Secretary of State, wipes his eyes at the funeral ceremony for Shevardnadze in Tbilisi on July 13. Photo: Lela Blagonravova/AP

Eduard Shevardnadze (1928-2014) will be remembered for his role, along with Gorbachev, in the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc.

EDUARD SHEVARDNADZE, who was Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union and, after its collapse, the President of independent Georgia, passed away on July 7 at the age of 86. Shevardnadze was born in the then Soviet Republic of Georgia. Many contemporary historians have recalled that Shevardnadze along with his former boss, Mikhail Gorbachev, were to a large extent responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union and the political and economic chaos that followed. Gorbachev, after becoming President of the Soviet Union, had handpicked Shevardnadze, a virtually unknown Communist Party boss then, as his Foreign Minister. Shevardnadze himself later acknowledged that he was surprised by Gorbachev’s decision to appoint him to the post as he lacked expertise in foreign policy matters. In Georgia, he had risen to the top rank in the party as an anti-corruption crusader. It is another matter that at the end of his political career he was himself dogged by corruption scandals.

Gorbachev needed a man he could trust to implement his grandiose “perestroika” and “glasnost” reforms. The reforms were ostensibly aimed at restructuring socialism but they led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and eventually to the collapse of the socialist bloc. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had struck up a close friendship in their younger days. Both evidently had secretly shared the perception that the Soviet system was in urgent need of radical reforms. Gorbachev recalled in his 1995 book Memoirs that he had chosen a Foreign Minister who understood his thinking and that he had assured himself “a free hand in foreign policy by bringing in a close friend and associate”.

Soft on the West

Shevardnadze’s lack of expertise in diplomacy, however, did not stop him from playing an outsize role on the world stage during the halcyon years (1985-1991) that marked his tenure. Shevardnadze earned the nickname “Silver Fox of the Caucasus”, mainly owing to his white-haired visage, rather than his calculating ways. The tough diplomatic posture that Moscow had previously adopted towards the West under his long-serving predecessor, Andrei Gromyko, was watered down and significant concessions were made. Despite the lack of reciprocity from the West, Moscow’s diplomatic and military retreat continued.

In a hasty bid to cut its military losses in Afghanistan, Moscow ordered the withdrawal of Soviet forces, leaving the progressive government in Kabul defenceless. The United States and its allies kept on funding and arming the “mujahideen” forces based in Pakistan. In Africa, where the Soviet Union had been playing a proactive role in the decolonisation process, Moscow chose to take a back seat. The decolonisation process was not yet complete as proxy forces backed by the West were busy trying to destabilise the continent. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc led to the rise of client regimes in the Horn of Africa and other parts of Africa. As recent events in Libya, Mali, Somalia and other states have shown, the colonial powers have now made a comeback to the continent.

Shevardnadze as Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union had a warm personal equation with his Western counterparts of the time such as James Baker, the Secretary of State during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, and George Shultz, the Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. Baker and Shevardnadze were often photographed walking hand in hand. Baker was effusive in his praise for his departed friend. It is said that it was Baker’s influence on Shevardnadze that led to Moscow allowing the United Nations Security Council to authorise the liberation of Kuwait in 1990. This led to the first Gulf War. The cascading effects of that war are still being felt in the region. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was one of the staunchest allies of the Soviet Union.

Disbanding Warsaw Pact

Among the major agreements signed with the U.S. during Shevardnadze’s tenure in Moscow was a series of arms control agreements that included the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The treaties did help in significantly reducing the number of nuclear weapons deployed on the European continent. It was during Shevardnadze’s watch that the Warsaw Pact was disbanded. The Pact was a military alliance of East European nations led by Moscow to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) that Washington had created at the beginning of the Cold War. Soviet military forces were removed from Eastern Europe and from the border with China. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact had a snowballing effect leading to the disintegration of socialist bloc.

Today, many former allies of Moscow are members of the European Union and NATO. Moscow acquiesced to the reunification of Germany without consulting the East German Communist Party leadership under Erich Honecker. The Berlin Wall was dismantled without the West making any significant concessions in return. The German government was so grateful to Shevardnadze that it built a huge mansion for him and invited him to stay permanently in their country. The fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to signify the end of the Cold War. The U.S. Secretary of State and the President had assured the Kremlin that with the Cold War ending, military groupings such as NATO would be disbanded. Instead, after the disintegration of the socialist bloc, NATO has expanded aggressively. Today, NATO has virtually ringed Russia’s European borders. Ukraine is the latest applicant for NATO membership.

Shevardnadze’s unilateral concessions to the West had come in for strong criticism from ideologues within the Communist Party. The policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika” were themselves coming under the scanner. There were signs that Gorbachev himself had come to the conclusion that the time had come to scale back the reform process. This was evidently not to the liking of Shevardnadze, who by now seemed to have fully embraced the ideology of the West and the goal of multiparty democracy.

He was the first Soviet leader to openly admit to his disillusionment with communism. In a statement made in 1988, Shevardnadze said that the clash of ideas between socialism and capitalism was no longer of any relevance. Shevardnadze later said that while he had ceased to be a socialist, Gorbachev still thought that he “was refining socialism”. He dramatically resigned as Foreign Minister in December 1990, saying that the Soviet Union was reverting to its old ways. The Party old guard at the time were already planning their moves to oust Gorbachev.

Resignation at gunpoint

During the power grab by Boris Yeltsin in 1991, Shevardnadze was by his side. After Yeltsin consolidated his hold on power and the Soviet Union was allowed to disintegrate, Shevardnadze returned to his native Georgia that had become an independent republic. The country was in turmoil with factional clan leaders fighting for control. Shevardnadze returned to Tbilisi in 1992 after the President was forced to flee from there.

Shevardnadze took over the leadership of the country and managed to end the bloody civil war, but the country remained politically unstable. Shevardnadze himself barely survived three assassination attempts in the 1990s after his return to politics in Georgia.

He was first elected President of Georgia in 1995. Along with capitalism, he had embraced cronyism. Owing to his connections, Georgia became one of the largest per capita recipients of U.S. aid, but very little of it reached the people. At the end of his presidency, his family had become the wealthiest in Georgia. When he stood for re-election in 2000, he had become deeply unpopular. However, he won a second term by resorting to rigging and vote-buying. Georgia once again slipped into political chaos. The opposition stormed the Parliament building, forcing the President to resign at gunpoint in November 2003.

After being removed from office, Shevardnadze backtracked on his embrace of the multiparty system during the last days of the Soviet Union. Speaking to the media after his ouster from the Georgian presidency, Shevardnadze said that his experience had shown that “it is not good to have too much democracy”. He was after all overthrown by the so-called “rose” revolution that was financed and remote controlled by the West. Colour revolutions of a similar kind have been replicated in Ukraine and Serbia.

Under Shevardnadze’s leadership, Georgia distanced itself from Moscow and veered towards Washington. He initiated the Georgian government’s successful attempts to become the hub of a pipeline network that bypassed the Russian grid and transported Central Asian oil and gas to the Western market. He mentored pro-Western leaders, including his immediate successor, Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili had led Georgia to an ill-conceived short-lived war with Russia that resulted in the humiliation of the country’s army. Georgia now is under a more neutral leadership, which is bereft of the ideological posturing that marked the period under Shevardnadze and his ideological heir, Saakashvili.

Some Western historians are claiming that Shevardnadze’s contribution to ending the Cold War was crucial. Gorbachev, speaking after Shevardnadze’s death was announced, said that his former colleague had made “an important contribution to the foreign policy of perestroika and was an ardent supporter of the new thinking in world affairs”. A Russian academic, Alexander Mikhailenko, who specialises on foreign policy, said that Shevardnadze leaves behind a mixed legacy. “He is remembered as one of those who brought the system down. In retrospect, some people will appreciate his role in this process. Others will continue to condemn him and Gorbachev for this,” Mikhailenko told the daily Moscow Times. Compared to the contribution of another Georgian, Joseph Stalin, to the history of the Soviet Union and socialism, Shevardnadze’s role eventually will be a mere footnote.

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