TBILISI – Eduard Shevardnadze was a key figure in revolutions abroad and the victim of one at home. As the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, he helped topple the Berlin Wall and end the Cold War, but as the leader of post-Soviet Georgia his career in the public eye ended in humiliation when he was chased out of his parliament and forced into retirement.
Shevardnadze died Monday at the age of 86, a decade after he left office. His spokeswoman said he died after a long illness, but did not elaborate.
The white-haired man with a gravelly voice was the diplomatic face of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika. Following the wooden Andrei Gromyko, Shevardnadze impressed Western leaders with his charisma, his quick wit and his commitment to Gorbachev’s reform course.
He was a main advocate of the policy of allowing the Warsaw Pact countries to seek their own political courses. It became known as the Sinatra Doctrine, a joking reference to the song “My Way,” and was a major break with the old Brezhnev Doctrine of keeping the satellite states on a tight leash.
“He made a large contribution to the foreign affairs policy of perestroika, and he was a true supporter of new thinking in global affairs,” Gorbachev told Interfax Monday.
“His appointment as the foreign minister was unexpected for many people, but he capably conducted affairs in that post and it wasn’t for nothing that he was valued by diplomats, his comrades at work and foreign partners.”
Shevardnadze helped push through the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, signed landmark arms control agreements, and helped negotiate German reunification in 1990 – a development that Soviet leaders had long feared and staunchly opposed.
“I think one can say that he was one of the significant and outstanding statesmen of the 20th century,” Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Shevardnadze’s West German counterpart in the late 1980s, told The Associated Press.
Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker added: “Eduard Shevardnadze will have an honoured place in history because he and Mikhail Gorbachev refused to support the use of force to keep the Soviet empire together. Many millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe and around the world owe their freedom to them.”
But in the former Soviet Union, those nostalgic for a return to superpower status lumped Shevardnadze with Gorbachev in the ranks of the unpardonable.
Shevardnadze resigned in December 1990, warning that reform was collapsing and dictatorship was imminent. A year later, the Soviet Union collapsed in the wake of an attempted hard-line coup against Gorbachev.
Shevardnadze returned to Georgia after its first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ousted in a coup in 1992; Shevardnadze was elected speaker of parliament and became the country’s leader. Gamsakhurdia died under mysterious circumstances in 1993, and Shevardnadze was elected president for a five-year term in 1995 after the country adopted a new constitution.
He survived two assassination attempts, including an assault on his motorcade with anti-tank weapons. Many observers suggested the attacks blunted Shevardnadze’s reformist impulses and left him interested only in holding onto power. Although he had pursued a pro-Western policy, Georgia under Shevardnadze became plagued by corruption and a deterioration of democracy.
In November 2003, massive demonstrations that became known as the Rose Revolution erupted after allegations of widespread fraud in a parliamentary election. Police maintained a low profile – Shevardnadze later said he feared any police action against the demonstrators would lead to terrible bloodshed. After three weeks, protesters led by future president Mikhail Saakashvili broke into a parliament session where Shevardnadze was speaking and drove him out of the building.
Shevardnadze was born on Jan. 25, 1928, in the village of Mamati near Georgia’s Black Sea coast, the fifth and final child in a rural family that hoped he would become a doctor. Instead, he launched a political career at age 20 by joining the Communist Party, and received a university degree only 31 years later from a teachers’ institute.
He steadily rose through the ranks of the party, its Komsomol youth organization and Georgia’s police force until being named the republic’s interior minister, the top law enforcement official. He gained a reputation for purging corrupt Georgian officials and forcing them to give up ill-gotten cars, mansions and other property.
Shevardnadze’s anti-corruption campaign caught the attention of Soviet officials in Moscow, and he was named Communist Party chief of Georgia in 1972. He eased censorship and permitted his republic to become one of the most progressive in the cultural sphere, producing a stream of taboo-breaking films and theatrical productions.
Shevardnadze was appointed Soviet foreign minister in 1985. He resigned five years later to protest plans to use force to quell unrest in the Soviet Union. He joined Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in resisting an attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and returned to the foreign minister’s job for a brief stint later that year, as the Soviet Union sped toward extinction.
When he returned to Georgia, he inherited a country wracked by chaos. Fighting broke out in 1990 in the northern province of South Ossetia, bordering on Russia, after the nationalist Georgian government voted to deprive the province of its autonomy.
A more serious secessionist uprising followed in the province of Abkhazia. The small region, bordered by the Black Sea and Russia, has been effectively independent since separatists drove out government forces during a 1992-93 war. The two sides reached a cease-fire in 1994, but peace talks on a political solution have stalled.
Even the capital Tbilisi was run by politically connected gangs and gang-related politicians, and legislators had to be reminded to check their guns before entering parliament. Shevardnadze managed to disarm the most notorious gang, the Mkhedrioni or Horsemen, in 1995, after the first attempt to kill him.
The political chaos was accompanied by economic hardship. Georgia lost Soviet-era orders for its factories. Every winter, Georgians suffered gas and electricity outages. In spite of Shevardnadze’s Communist-era record as a “clean-hands” politician, corruption gripped the country at every level.
Shevardnadze shepherded Georgia into the Council of Europe, and said on occasions – to Moscow’s considerable irritation – that Tbilisi would one day “knock on NATO’s door.” U.S. officials forged close ties with Shevardnadze, and the U.S. government gave his nation millions of dollars in aid in hopes of keeping Georgia in the Western orbit.
He kept a low profile in retirement, though he did take public stances, including criticism of the Georgian assault on the separatist capital of South Ossetia that was an opening move in the brief 2008 war with Russia. In 2009, when protests against Saakashvili arose, Shevardnadze said he should step down.
Shevardnadze’s wife, Nanuli, died in 2004. The couple had a daughter and a son.