Former Soviet Minister and Georgia Leader Shevardnadze Dies at 86

Eduard Shevardnadze played a vital role in ending the Cold War and went on to lead Georgia in the stormy early years after independence before being ousted in street protests.


Eduard Shevardnadze, a former president of Georgia and Soviet foreign minister, died on Monday after a long struggle with illness, his personal assistant said. 

Shevardnadze, who was 86, played a vital role in ending the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister, went on to lead his native Georgia in the stormy early years after independence before being ousted in street protests.

The last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, expressed sorrow over the passing of a "friend," hailing him as an "extraordinary, talented person" who had done much to bring down the Berlin wall and end the nuclear arms race. 

"He was always quick to find a way of connecting with different people - with youngsters and the older generation. He had a bright character, a Georgian temperament," he said, referring to Shevardnadze's passionate nature. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his condolences to his "family, as well as the Georgian people."

Shevardnadze's assistant, Marina Davitashvili, told Reuters he had died after a long illness and said he had died at midday local time.   

Charm and quick wit set Shevardnadze apart from his predecessors as the Soviet Union's face to the world.

He was a wily and bruising political operator, one of the intellectual fathers of Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of "perestroika" (restructuring) who helped oversee the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.

Shevardnadze was also instrumental in the unification of Germany.

His shock resignation in late 1990, however, dealt a huge blow to Gorbachev, and gave substance to a creeping unease over the threat from hardline opponents of reform and the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union.

As the union splintered, Shevardnadze returned to his native Georgia, newly independent, to try and save it from civil war.

The ageing statesman became cut off, poverty and corruption flourishing under

him until his U.S.-educated protégé, Mikheil Saakashvili, harnessed street protests that became the Rose Revolution and Shevarnadze's bodyguards ushered him out the back door of parliament and into retirement.

"I'm going home," he said in a televised address announcing his resignation in 2003.

Shevardnadze spent his last decade in quiet seclusion in his hilltop residence, an elderly sage offering words of wisdom to a people who had long stopped listening.

"History will judge him kindly," Saakashvili said in 2003.

'Democracy and Freedom'

Eduard Shevardnadze was born on Jan. 25, 1928, in a west Georgian village near the Black Sea during the rule of Josef Stalin, a fellow Georgian.

He began working his way up the Communist hierarchy in his early 20s, rising to head the internal security agencies in his 30s and the Georgian branch of the party by 1972 at the age of 44.

His rule was remembered for a loosening of censorship and the emergence of Georgia - long the sub-tropical playground of the Soviet elite - as the most culturally progressive Soviet republic.

In 1985, fresh from winning a Kremlin power struggle, Gorbachev picked Shevardnadze to be foreign minister. The new man was a departure from the apparatchiks of old, his appointment a statement of intent.

The pace of change was electric: Shevardnadze would become friends with U.S. Secretaries of State George Schultz and James Baker, or 'Jim' as he called him, as the world watched with awe the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With Baker and West Germany's Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Shevardnadze is widely credited with securing Germany's peaceful unification and the withdrawal of Soviet forces.

Then, suddenly, in December 1990, Shevardnadze resigned in an impassioned speech to parliament against what he said was the coming dictatorship. The world was stunned.

His statement was seen as a warning of the threat posed by the reactionary Soviet right wing to the transformation under Gorbachev, as well as the president's own increasing reliance on security forces to quell spreading unrest.

"Reformers have gone and hidden in the bushes. Dictatorship is coming," Shevardnadze said.

But he vowed it would not come to pass.

"The future belongs to democracy and freedom," he told the chamber.

Less than a year later, in 1991, hardliners mounted what became known as the "August coup", fearing communism's complete collapse.

The putschists ultimately failed, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin standing atop a tank in central Moscow rallying thousands against them. The Soviet Union was effectively abolished under Gorbachev's nose before the year was out.

The president resigned.


In Georgia, however, civil war was under way. Shevardnadze returned in 1992 to a capital in ruins, ethnic conflict raging in two breakaway regions with the help of Moscow. Thugs toting Kalashnikovs were a law unto themselves.

Shevardnadze ultimately failed to resolve either the Abkhazia or South Ossetia conflicts, which would erupt again 15 years later under Saakashvili.

The president was initially seen as a reformer, advocating European and NATO integration and instituting some democratic changes with the aid of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Beneath the surface, however, the economy was in tatters, dragged down by Russia's economic collapse in the late 1990s. Cronyism and corruption had reached almost every corner of life. Shevardnadze couldn't even keep the lights on, so bad were the power shortages.

Painting him as a Machiavellian schemer, Shevardnadze's critics said he had become just what he had warned against, a petit post-Soviet dictator. In 2003, two years before the end of his mandate, protests erupted over a supposedly rigged parliamentary election.

Twenty days of mass demonstrations in Tbilisi climaxed on Nov. 23 of that year when Shevardnadze tried to open parliament. Saakashvili barged into the chamber, holding a rose and tailed by supporters. "Resign!" he shouted.

The president's bodyguards, guns raised, bundled him out. Shevardnadze mobilised the army, but after meeting Saakashvili he took to the airwaves to resign.

In retirement, Shevardnadze kept a chunk of the Berlin Wall on a shelf in his office.