DOUGLAS MARTIN - Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who as Mikhail S Gorbachev’s foreign minister helped hone the “new thinking,” foreign and domestic, that transformed and ultimately rent the Soviet Union, then led his native Georgia through its turbulent start as an independent state, died Monday. He was 86.
Irakli Garibashvili, the prime minister of Georgia, praised Shevardnadze for his “important role in finishing the Cold War and founding a new world order.” Gorbachev issued a statement offering his condolences to the family of Shevardnadze, as did President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Shevardnadze was forced from office in 2003 by the Rose Revolution, as the Georgian public vented its frustration with the corrupt post-Soviet system that he presided over. His ouster began a period of dramatic government reform that saw Georgia become a darling of the West under his successor, Mikheil Saakashvili. Shevardnadze was a committed Communist from a Communist family who had spent his working life as a Communist official when Gorbachev called him on June 30, 1985, with an astounding proposition: Would he manage the foreign policy of one of the two most powerful countries in the world?
Flabbergasted, Shevardnadze stammered that he had no experience in diplomacy, other than hosting foreign delegations as the top Communist official in the Soviet republic of Georgia. He had visited just nine countries and spoke no foreign languages. And shouldn’t the foreign minister be Russian?
“The issue is already decided,” Gorbachev answered, Shevardnadze wrote in his memoirs, “The Future Belongs to Freedom” (1991). Shevardnadze was to report to work the next day. “The decision to make Shevardnadze foreign minister was the first obvious display of Gorbachev’s remarkable political creativity,” Robert G. Kaiser wrote in “Why Gorbachev Happened: His Triumphs, His Failure, and His Fall” (1991). Shevardnadze was actually in the process of renouncing his Communist past. He had come to believe that the ideology was both wrong and doomed. In 1988, he was the first Soviet official to say that the clash with capitalism no longer mattered - an act of “true ‘sedition’ in the eyes of the official ideologues,” Gorbachev said in his “Memoirs” (1995).
Shevardnadze’s revisionist thinking was actually outpacing that of Gorbachev. “He thought he was refining socialism while I was no longer a socialist,” Shevardnadze told The New York Times Magazine in 1993. Shevardnadze became worried that Gorbachev was increasingly falling under the influence of the hard-liners. He ultimately shocked his boss by resigning on Dec. 20, 1990, warning, “Dictatorship is coming.” After a botched coup attempt by hard-liners in August 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved itself on Dec. 26, 1991. It was the victim of economic chaos, political opposition from many of the constituent republics and chaos in the Kremlin. Three months later, Shevardnadze agreed to head the council governing Georgia after a coup there. He was elected president in 1995 and helped hold his country together, establish democratic reforms and stabilize the economy.
But his second term, won in 2000, was a disaster, as armed civil clashes proliferated, the economy deteriorated and cronyism and corruption flourished. He resigned on Nov. 24, 2003, after protesters’ chants of “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
The proximate cause of Shevardnadze’s fall was his involvement in rigged elections in 2002 and 2003, a violation of the electoral reform laws he himself had sponsored. His own Supreme Court invalidated the fraudulent elections.
In a television interview after being driven from office, Shevardnadze no longer spoke of perestroika or glasnost, the Russian words for rebuilding and openness that Gorbachev had popularized.
“It is not good to have too much democracy,” he said. “I think that was a mistake.”
Eduard Amvrosiyevich Shevardnadze was born in the village of Mamati, Georgia, on Jan. 25, 1928. His father was a Russian language teacher who was arrested in Stalin’s purges, but saved by a friend in the secret police. The boy threw himself into Communist youth activities and considered Communism his religion.
He joined the party in 1948. His parents insisted he go to medical school, but he soon left to be a political instructor for Komsomol, the Communist youth organization. While on vacation in 1951 at a Georgian resort, Shevardnadze met Nanuli Tsagareyshvili, a counselor at a camp for Pioneers, the Communist youth organization for young teens. He was told by a high-ranking party official that he should not marry her because her father had been arrested as an enemy of the people. The official said that Shevardnadze would become “a pariah, an outcast, with all the consequences that entailed,” Shevardnadze wrote in his memoirs.
They wed nevertheless, in 1951. “Why must I sacrifice my love to hatred?” he wrote.
She died in 2004. Shevardnadze is believed to be survived by his son, Pata, his daughter, Monana, and four grandchildren. While working for Komsomol, Shevardnadze graduated from the Higher Party School of the Communist Party of Georgia, and earned a teaching degree through a correspondence school. In 1956, he became head of the Georgian Komsomol.
He became minister of public order in 1965 and interior minister in 1968, both police positions under the K.G.B. He developed a reputation for toughness, even cruelty, and was said to torture prisoners.
He was also a renowned foe of Georgia’s rampant corruption. On his first day as minister of public order, according to a story circulating at the time, he asked senior officials for a show of hands. He then ordered everyone displaying an expensive black-market watch to take it off and turn it in.
In 1972, Shevardnadze flew to Moscow with a suitcase full of evidence of the corruption of Georgian leadership to show the Soviet leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev. He was rewarded with the job of first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia. In 1976, he was named to the central committee of the national Communist Party, and two years later became a nonvoting member of the ruling politburo.
Meanwhile, Shevardnadze built a network of connections, cultivating top party officials vacationing in Georgia. He became a protégé of Yuri Andropov, the longest-serving head of the K.G.B., who succeeded Mr. Brezhnev as the Soviet leader.
Shevardnadze met Gorbachev while the two were Komsomol officials in the mid-1960s. They immediately liked each other and began meeting regularly in Moscow, Georgia and in the Stavropol region, where Gorbachev led a Komsomol branch.
“Gradually, unnoticed to ourselves, we opened up to each other, beginning to confide our secret thoughts,” Shevardnadze wrote. In 1979, after both men learned about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from newspapers, they privately agreed it was “a fatal error,” in Shevardnadze’s words.
After Shevardnadze resigned in 1990, Gorbachev tried several times to persuade him to return as foreign minister. He finally did, in November 1991, for what turned out to be the final month of the Soviet Union’s existence. In March 1992, Shevardnadze was summoned by Georgia’s ruling council to try to bring order to the country after a coup had removed President Zviad K. Gamsakhurdia. He told The Times Magazine that he had known he “was jumping into a cauldron” when he accepted the post of chairman of the State Council of Georgia.
Shevardnadze remained in Georgia after his resignation as president, and commented on Georgian and global affairs as an elder statesman.
“Picasso had his different periods, and other artists, too,” he told The Times in 1992, before his second career as president of the new Georgia. “I made mistakes, I was sometimes unfair, but what was one supposed to do - stick with one position to the end? To the death? We have all changed.” –NY Times