Shevardnadze's Fall From Grace

Times Staff Writer

He was jeered in his own country as he ignominiously resigned from office Sunday, portrayed as an aging politician who got stuck in the same swamp of corruption, ethnic conflict and poverty that has beset so many of the former Soviet republics.

But barely a decade earlier, Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze had taken on formidable foes to help open the door for the Soviet Union's historic rapprochement with the West.

The 75-year-old leader who abandoned the helm of his failing republic as thousands of opposition demonstrators cheered will ultimately be remembered not for the sorry spectacle that is Georgia today but for his role, while serving as Soviet foreign minister, in orchestrating the complex diplomatic gambits that ultimately brought about the end of the Cold War.

The white-haired politician has been credited by some academics with being the moral force behind the diplomacy that helped realize former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika -- ferrying Moscow's initiatives to world capitals and staring down hard-line opponents in the Kremlin as only Shevardnadze, a lifelong party apparatchik, could.

Former U.S. secretaries of state James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz have both credited Shevardnadze with convincing them that Moscow was serious on issues ranging from arms control to market reform.

"His contribution to ending the Cold War cannot be underestimated," Pavel Palazhchenko, a Gorbachev Foundation analyst who worked with Shevardnadze as a translator for years, said in an interview Sunday. "Of course Mikhail Gorbachev and some foreign leaders played a huge part in it, but Shevardnadze's contribution by all means can't be ignored.... Shevardnadze managed to establish very close and positive personal relations with his counterparts in the leading Western powers.

"It is very sad that his political career ends like this."

Shevardnadze's resignation ended more than 30 years of senior leadership positions in Georgia. He became the republic's minister of internal affairs in 1968, launching an aggressive campaign against crime and political corruption that gained him admiring attention and eventual promotion to the Communist central committee and a position as head of the Communist Party in Georgia for 13 years.

Shevardnadze rose to the Kremlin as foreign minister in 1985, in time for the dramatic shift in traditional Soviet thinking that accompanied Gorbachev's rise to power and the gradual deterioration of the Soviet economy.

As foreign minister, Shevardnadze oversaw a sea change in the Soviet Union's approach to foreign relations. The free market experiments budding in eastern Europe were encouraged, and support for leftist liberation movements was sharply curtailed. Shevardnadze supported the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, which was concluded in 1989, and helped engineer crucial arms reduction agreements with the West.

Perhaps his shining moment, in the eyes of Russia's pro-democracy proponents, was his resignation as foreign minister in 1990, correctly warning that the country was headed toward a counter-democratic coup. "What I did was to ring a bell to wake up the progressive side of the Soviet Union," he said later.

He briefly took back his post after the coup was put down in 1991, and went back to his native Georgia as leader the following year, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The republic has been mired in trouble almost constantly since.

A secessionist conflict in Abkhazia has been boiling since 1992, the worst of at least three territorial and ethnic disputes troubling the region. Shevardnadze has survived two assassination attempts, and his government increasingly has been accused of being in league with corrupt oligarchs and gangs who have stymied most hope of strong business development and foreign investment.

"The people believed that his international experience, prestige and reputation would help Georgia become a full-fledged member of the world society, with Western money and assistance flowing in," said analyst Liliya Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "But in fact Shevardnadze froze Georgia for a number of years ....The only thing he could give his country was his Soviet-type leadership."


Times staff writers David Holley in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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