According to Soviet political tradition, retired politicians become nonpersons. Once they leave office, they disappear. If they leave with honor, their names go into history books. They do not, however, speak out on current affairs.
But Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, has no plans, at age 63, to drift quietly into such obscurity.
The suave, silver-haired Georgian who, as much as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, became the face of the Soviet Union’s new foreign policy, is skillfully fashioning for himself a role, unprecedented here, akin to an elder statesman.
He has been speaking even more boldly than when in office. “I am a free man now,” Shevardnadze says with relish. He has formed the Soviet Foreign Policy Assn. to debate international issues-itself an innovation in Soviet politics. And he is crafting proposals-on the Middle East, on the Soviet-U.S. partnership-that could make him a shaper of the “new world order.”
For Shevardnadze did not merely retire. He resigned in December with a political thunderclap that echoed across the country-even around the world. Warning of the growing danger of a right-wing dictatorship, he quit in the midst of the Congress of People’s Deputies, while conservatives used foreign policy to attack Gorbachev and perestroika. His action is still debated, but he is satisfied he did what was right.
Shevardnadze, who contributed much to the original formulation of perestroika, remains in touch with Gorbachev, meeting for long strategy sessions.
A schoolteacher’s son, he spent his young adult years as an official of the Communist Youth League, where he met Gorbachev in the 1950s. He had come to the Soviet leadership from the southern republic of Georgia, where he had been a tough campaigner against corruption as the top policeman.
Today, he wears his trademark dark-blue pin-stripe suit, set off by an Italian tie. The manner is courtly, the discourse intelligent, the judgements well balanced.
Still, the trappings of power are gone. Shevardnadze’s office is in a half-empty embassy building, repossessed after an African nation did not pay the rent. There is no special Kremlin phone line. Couriers arrive only rarely with sealed packets of top-secret documents. “It’s all right,” he says. “I have a new mission, a very important one.”
Question: When American and Soviet leaders talk about the “new world order,” are they talking about the same thing? Some talk about it as a renewed pax Americana. What does it mean to you?
Answer: Naturally, Americans and the U.S. Administration play a tremendous role in the world. This cannot be denied. But there are certain points that cause anxiety. Although I won’t mention names, they sometimes say things like, “America . . . is the leader of the struggle for democracy; the creator of the new world order; the entire world looks up with hope to the United States,” and so on.
Well, I recall my years as a very youthful official, when I delivered speeches, in the early ‘50s, declaring that the Soviet Union was the beacon for all humankind, that the whole world is following in our tracks, that we were the fountain of ideas of freedom, democracy and so forth. (Laughing) Sometimes, I look with shame at my past activities.
It is true that in World War II we had something to be proud of, and even now we speak with pride of our decisive role. But it seems that in subsequent stages we should have played more modestly. Of course, no one will rival America in its status of a superpower with a strong economy and considerable military strength. But is there not a lesson here?
There is something else about this pax Americana (however): . . . to frighten the world by pointing to the Soviet Union as still retaining the military potential and even desire and saying that the threat is not yet eliminated and that America should maintain all its military capability. I think these expressions should be used with far greater caution.
Right now, we are at a stage when new relations have not yet become a law of politics . . . . As we say, the buds of the new crop are still fragile . . . .
No matter how events develop in the Soviet Union, no matter what trends are manifested, including destructive ones, these difficulties are of temporary nature. Therefore Soviet-American relations in the foreseeable future will determine to a considerable degree, if not entirely, the destiny of the world, the potential for peace.
Q: Foreign policy has become a major domestic political issue. The treaty with the United States on the Bering Sea, the agreement on conventional armed forces in Europe, the treaties on German unification--all have been questioned here. How did it become so controversial in Soviet politics? What does this do to the ability of Soviet leaders to negotiate agreements?
A: What is happening concerning foreign policy is not only criticism. Criticism is a quite normal state of affairs. America has similar debates--not all decisions by Mr. Bush are applauded. Ministers can be criticized. But this is about one of the reasons why I decided to resign. When the talk was no longer criticism but attacks, charges, insults and pure slanders, I found this a form of protest. Others might use other methods, perhaps parliamentary struggle.
Just recall how many personal accusations (of having sold out Soviet interests) I had to endure concerning the German treaties and German reunification. Some protested and voted against, others went much further. But logic is logic, and normal people will understand that, sooner or later, this was the only peaceful policy alternative we had that was justified, objective and profitable for us in terms of our national interests and objective, and just for the German nation.
Some dilettantes are now attacking this agreement with the United States on the Bering Straits (demarcating the boundary between the two countries). But what shall we do--declare war on America? For at least a decade, these negotiations had gone on, and we could have dragged them on longer. But this is a rather dangerous spot because we could have armed clashes there. We sought to remove all potential sources of danger and threats to stability and to establish normal relations between our countries.
These negotiations were conducted at the highest level of expertise--with the participation of the military, defense ministry, the minister himself and even--I can reveal a small secret--the KGB, along with the Navy and fishermen. We gathered all expert opinion and processed it into a treaty. Now, they pull it out again and make charges that we made concessions not only in disarmament but also on such vital issues as territorial integrity.
This is just foolishness. If a parliamentary debate ensues, I will defend this treaty. Truth is on our side because it was a reasonable decision. The Politburo approved it, and today’s president, as the party’s general secretary, voted for it--as did the prime minister. Yet, everybody is now silent. Funny that.
Q: Why are they silent? Are they afraid of the conservatives? This goes to the question of how foreign policy became so controversial
A: It’s a reflection of what is happening in this country. They (conservative critics) want to demonstrate that perestroika was begun and pursued by incompetent people, that they consistently made concessions and yielded ground. And it was not only inside the country that they led the state toward catastrophe, but in foreign policy, too, through an incompetent, unprofessional approach. But who is making these charges? Dilettantes, unprofessional people, people with a rather dim perception of these matters, people who are incapable of sorting things into first and second priorities.
Just consider how difficult it is today. Yes, we are facing chaos--we are on the very brink of the abyss. If all this happened amid a continuing arms race; if we had to find additional resources--and not only financial--to develop more and more kinds of arms, and if we were denied the opportunity to reduce our armaments and the cost of maintaining our armed forces, we would be in a complete and total disaster. If we continued our confrontation with the United States, Western Europe, China, Japan, and we were preparing to fight each and every one of them, could our economy sustain this effort? What situation would the people be in? These are elementary truths that my opponents do not want to see.
Q: When you resigned, you warned about the coming dangers, especially that of a dictatorship, a reactionary takeover. How do you see the situation in the Soviet Union? What prospects does it have for emerging from its crises?
A: . . . . The situation is most complicated now. It is difficult economically--and this causes tremendous social tensions. People are tired, and one must have pity for them. We have discovered a lot of our own mistakes--ones that we have made in perestroika --and we must remember we had the catastrophic inheritance and we failed to resolve everything over these years. Add to this, ethnic problems are heating up the situation further. And now the political situation is degenerating into confrontation. All this is happening against a background of difficult developments within society.
We should have worked out our position on many issues much earlier . . . but we simply did not know what had to be done or how it should be done. How should we move to a market economy? For the fifth year, we are debating this.
These processes are very slow, very painful. Now, the most important thing is to achieve economic stabilization . . . .
There is an opportunity to emerge from this situation if we manage to consolidate all healthy forces . . . . But we have not yet learned this ability to draw together all the people with progressive mentality . . . . Too often, this inability facilitates the emergence of adventurists--not only the military but reactionaries as well, who want to restore the old order or devise new forms for the old contents. I call this dictatorship, but maybe it will come as something different.
. . . . So far, there are no clear signs that we shall be able to improve this political atmosphere. But I still think the leading forces, the leading players are capable of guiding us toward this.
Q: Did your resignation have the impact you wanted as a warning about the right’s resurgence? Have the democrats you accused of fleeing to “the bushes” come out?
A: To a certain degree, it did. Such political actions cannot be statistically evaluated or analyzed with scientific precision. You can, of course, undertake a political analysis and, in a few years, the impact will be clear. Even now, however, I can feel that, yes, people were put on alert. After all--it was not just an ordinary functionary who was removed, but a man who is still known to the country and the world. People thought, “Something is happening if he has to resign.”
And I think that the democrats, at last, have started to get a move on. In parliament, they understood--the German treaties are being approved. My resignation did serve to put people on alert. That was my primary motive.
Q: What is your relationship now with President Gorbachev? Was your resignation a break with him?
A: I don’t have this attitude--break with Gorbachev, break with (Russian President Boris N.) Yeltsin, break with (conservative Russian Communist Party leader Ivan K.) Polozkov. I have normal relations with everyone--including the president. The day before yesterday, on his initiative, we met and, for two-and-a-half hours, we sat and discussed a lot of issues. I maintain relations with everyone else on the same basis.
Of course, I have greater understanding with those who are seriously talking about democracy--seriously, I emphasize, seriously. In this country, there are people who use left-wing slogans to mask other goals.
Q: What must President Gorbachev do to recover the momentum, the vision, that perestroika had at the beginning?
A: I think he understands what needs to be done. That is: more active support of democratic forces, of the democratic movement, more active, more courageous support. If one does not have a strong enough political basis, it is difficult, I understand. But if the democratic forces were to consolidate, then he could. However, he cannot renounce his collaboration with the conservatives because, among the conservatives, the majority are quite decent people who are concerned about their state and their nation. But democracy needs more active support.
Secondly, no matter how difficult it is, the top priority for the president--he, himself--must be to establish a dialogue with all the leaders in the republics. He does have constructive, businesslike, comradely relations with many--but there is the central issue of Russia. The two presidents, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, must achieve agreement on perestroika , on democratization and on improvement of the economy. This, clearly, is very difficult when public statements have been made, when the struggle proceeds and when each has his own supporters.
I think I can make this comparison. I remember, when we started the dialogue with President Reagan, he had this favorite phrase: the “evil empire.” . . . Thus, the dialogue was not simple to start--and there were not only difficult moments but difficult hours. Yet, we all showed enough wisdom and desire to find a common language, and finally we managed to achieve that first courageous treaty . . . . We were from different states, different political and economic systems, but we managed to find consensus.
Why, in the very same country, when the country faces difficult crises, can’t these two men find a common language--no matter how difficult it may be? I would recommend they both forget all their umbrage, drop all mistakes and difficulties . . . . They should sit down for 10 days, for one month--I’d lock them up together (laughing)--until they agreed.
It is a very difficult situation in society. Democrats want to stage their demonstration, conservatives their own. But the confrontation that might result would already be beyond repair. Amid such military potential as we have, events in Vilnius (19 civilians were killed in January in a paratrooper assault on the television broadcast center of Lithuania’s pro-independence government) tell a lot.
In the international arena, we have become civilized people and give priority to politics over force, and this has brought us the greatest success in world affairs and we are talking about, now, construction of a new world. I am fully convinced that, in our country, we should stick to the same general line and seek mutual understanding and resolve all problems through political means--first of all, in direct contacts.
Q: Do you miss the Politburo sessions, the power, the Kremlin, life at the top?
A: No. What’s there to miss? I am not missing it. Truly I’m not. (Laughing)
. . . . What I am doing now is no small matter. We have certain capital in the form of authority and influence. So, while it has not yet evaporated, let’s use it in forming the association, in holding discussions, in publishing a journal and then apply it to other tasks.