Issue 4, 2014. August-September



Helena Bedwell

Shevardnadze: a polarizing politician

On a hot Monday noon I made a call to a lady who was a bridge between Eduard Shevardnadze, the foreign minister during the era of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the outside world for years, to check if the bad news about his death was real.

"Helena, its true," Marina wept. "It's true this time- he died at 12 today."

Shevardnadze was 86 and his death ended what was, for many Georgians, a bad period for Georgia; a small Caucasus country; a sunny region which was a leftover of the careless soviet system, which, just like its sister republics, turned into a run-down civil-war state almost overnight following the fall of communism in 1991.

Shevardnadze continued to try to improve the struggling war-torn independent republic, but organized crime syndicates were extremely powerful and he was often left standing alone in his struggle. He brokered deals to bring oil pipelines through the country and these actions gradually led to the population receiving, sporadically, gas and oil.

However, this was not enough for the population and he made a dignified resignation following the bloodless Rose Revolution, bringing to power a very pro-western government led by Mikheil Saakashvili.

Indeed, from 2003, Shevardnadze was all but stranded at home in his Krtsanisi residence, one of the most popular green areas of the capital, Tbilisi. The former president remained a popular person to visit for foreign visitors and reporters who wanted to hear his words of wisdom, alongside well-wishers who remembered his acts of kindness.

It was Marina who organized those meetings for him. I was glad I managed to see him just a few years ago. He appeared weaker and frailer than ever as I took the last pictures, but it was always pleasing to see the man who had reshaped the history of the world- for better or worse, depending on one's point of view.

Shevardnadze's legacy

"I don't think there would be a free Georgia today had it not been for Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikhail Gorbachev, because these two men refused to use force to keep the Soviet Union together," Former United States Secretary of State, James Baker said when visiting Tbilisi to attend the funeral of his friend. He added that forces against perestroika and glastnost were very strong in the Soviet Union in those days.

Shevardnadze began his career in the 1970s as a Communist Party boss in Georgia, which was then a Soviet republic. In 1985, as Gorbachev's surprise choice for the post of foreign minister, he helped lead policy initiatives that would end the Cold War.

In our last interview, he told me that Gorbachev wanted nothing but "Socialism with a human face" but nevertheless he helped to dismantle the once powerful empire. Shevadnadze noted, with a laugh, that "Sometimes, it was hard with Gorbachev; he did not always listen to me."

He resigned as foreign minister in 1990, saying in his now-famous speech that he believed that a dictatorship lay ahead. Eight months later, in August 1991, a group of Soviet hard-liners staged a coup against Gorbachev, but it failed, triggering the breakup of both the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.

Without a doubt Shevardnadze shook the world's politics- not only did world leaders like Baker, Reagan, and Gorbachev bow down to his abilities, the Berlin wall was demolished...and then in 1987 a truly unimaginable fact; thanks to him, Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze released a scandalous film exposing the tyranny of Stalin-era labor camps.

Baker stood in church at his funeral, weeping. Earlier he told me that when, as the United States Secretary of State, he first met the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was in full bloom. Over the course of the next four years they were able to bring our countries from confrontation into cooperation, and in the process they became not only friends but affectionate friends.

Yet Shevardnadze was nothing but a failure at home. For many, like Zurab Guruli, MD, PhD, who fled the country in the 1990s, Shevardnadze will be remembered as a Soviet statesman, fanatic communist, ruthless ruler and someone who invited the Russian military army into Georgia - the author of the notorious phrase: "The sun rises from the north."

Shevardnadze's return to his homeland after the fall of the first post-Soviet elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was not an easy task. Gamsakhurdia was removed after a coup d'e tat and devastating civil war.

Shevardnadze led the state for 11 years after the civil war. His rule was far from peaceful, however, and he was constantly being reminded of that lawless period in the early 1990s which many believed to be a sin Shevardnadze committed against Georgia. Gamsakhurdia supporters, led by the late president's wife Manana Archvadze, always condemned Shevardnadze as the evil which brought the country to its knees by killing the chosen president and losing territories to Russia.

Scores of Gamsakhurdia supporters, mostly women, religiously shouted abusive names outside his residence even after he resigned and decided to spend his time next to his beloved wife's grave, writing books and his memoirs.

The day that Shevardnadze died people came to pay their respects. Members of the current Georgian government, priests, and close relatives poured in to pay tribute.

Others were not so polite and groups of emotional women spoke out that they still believed he was a Kremlin-managed stooge who orchestrated the end of the real Georgian state and that he is guilty even in death.

"He is a criminal, he should never have been left as a free man- he and his allies must be tried for the crimes they committed by overthrowing the legal government in 1991 and then killing Gamsakhurdia," the women shouted outside his residence.

While he signed the historic energy route agreement with Azerbaijan, at home he failed to fight corruption or heal the wounds from the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts.

Then there was the uprising in western Georgia, this time by Gamsakhurdian loyalists.

Following that were two assassination attempts against him. The first was carried out in summer 1995, when Shevardnadze's escort was leaving his office, recalled his former bodyguard, who did not want to be named, in an interview in June 2011.

The second attempt in 1997 was more like a "military operation" rather than just an assassination, he said. Shevardnadze's escort was driving him home when a group of militants fired several anti-tank missiles at his bullet-proof Mercedes and opened fire, killing two of Shevardnadze's bodyguards.

Georgia's Silver Fox, or Babu

In our last interview we talked about Russia and the worsened relations between the two neighbors. Shevardnadze disliked Saakashvili and blamed him for this. However, he believed that Russia had already made a huge mistake by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the 2008 armed conflict.

"Why did they do it? It's a huge failure for them. What about the Chechens? What about the Tatars? What about the other nations that may outnumber Abkhazians and South Ossetians?" he said, shrugging his shoulders, in 2011.

I was never particularly fond of his most popular world-known nickname, the "Silver Fox," and preferred more his home name "Babu-" with its accompanying image of a sweet granddad.

"`I did nothing wrong." These were his last words to me on the question how did he feel about the demise of the Soviet Union, and everything else he did.

"It was unavoidable, it was the correct step, and how could it have stayed like that? So many different people," Shevardnadze said. "It was an empire. Every empire collapses sooner or later, but, to be honest, it collapsed sooner than I expected!"