Eduard Shevardnadze: A Journey to Global Politics and Back

The former Soviet Foreign Minister and President of Georgia died on Monday, 7 July, aged 86. Levan Kakhisvilli reflects on the latter part of his career, which threatened to mar his legacy as one of the men who brought the Cold War to a peaceful end.

Photo by Rob Ward. Used under creative commons license

Born in a small remote village of Mamati in what is now one of the poorest regions of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze will be remembered as a politician who “helped change the world” but also left a “complicated political legacy.” These two views of Shevardnadze as a political figure perfectly reflect his experience as the Soviet Foreign Minister, on the one hand, and as the President of Georgia, on the other.

Shevardnadze, who died on Monday, 7 July, 2014 at the age of 86, is known to the world as one of the architects of perestroika, contributing to the end of the Cold War. Before becoming Foreign Minister, he was the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Georgia. He won renown for fighting corruption there and introducing mild reforms in the field of economy.

Shevardnadze was then appointed as a Foreign Minister, replacing Andrei Gromyko. He was first viewed as a weak figure who would submit to Gorbachev’s personal influence but without significant prior experience in diplomacy, he soon achieved recognition not only within the Soviet Union but also beyond its borders. Yet, not only was he one of the key political figures in the diplomacy of the times, he was the first politician to resign the party membership. Shevardnadze later claimed that he sensed the end of the Soviet Union and this was the reason of his resignation.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze returned to his native Georgia to lead the country during the dark ages of violent conflicts and economic downturn. Despite powerful external influences, he managed to hold back the chaos and establish control over the most part of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory.

The costs were high, though: Shevardnadze signed a humiliating peace deal over South Ossetian war; he is often blamed for having lost Abkhazia, having entered Commonwealth of Independent States, and having let Russia garrison its military forces in Georgia. However, Georgia had little choice, given the massive asymmetry in resources, but to accept Russian-negotiated cease-fire agreements and the deployment of Russian troops as peacekeepers. Further, Shevardnadze later confessed in his memoirs, that Georgia “was forced to enter the CIS.”

On the other hand, the most important problem in the everyday lives of ordinary Georgians was the systemic corruption and poverty, which in fact led to the public outrage in early 2000s. Even so, President Shevardnadze achieved many important goals, mostly in foreign relations. Indeed, his most significant achievement was the establishment of Georgia as a state. Georgia joined most international organisations during Shevardnadze’s presidency. Besides, Georgia managed to start its economic recovery in the second half of the 1990s. This, of course, came as a result of Shevardnadze’s success in attracting the West’s attention to Georgia’s strategic geopolitical location. Consequently, Georgia emerged as an important transit route for energy resources as a part of Southern Energy Corridor (it was Shevardnadze who sealed the so-called millennium project – the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline).

Moreover, in 1999 Georgia joined the Council of Europe – an important milestone of Georgia’s contemporary history – and Zurab Zhvania, the late Speaker of Shevardnadze’s parliament, famously stated: “I am Georgian, therefore, I am European.”

The following year, under Shevardnadze Georgia adopted its first ever strategic document concerning its foreign policy vision, which for the first time explicitly declared that the country aspired to joining Euro-Atlantic institutions. Shevardnadze then started to slowly detach Georgia from Russian sphere of influence: in 2001 he declared “Georgia is not the southern flank of Russia’s strategic space, but rather the northern flank of a horizontal band of Turkish and NATO strategic interests.” It can be argued it was Shevardnadze who laid the fundamental plank of Georgia’s western foreign policy orientation.

Finally, as the Associated Press puts it, Shevardnadze had “fearless life” but a “sad political ending.” This is true to some extent. Eduard Shevardnadze will be remembered by the world as the reformist Soviet Foreign Minister, by the Russians – as “a major figure in Russia’s history,” by the Germans – as the contributor of Germany’s unification, and, finally, by the Georgians – as a corrupt authoritarian ruler who had to be ousted by the people in a peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003.

in the end, President Shevardnadze decided to step down because of the fraudulent election results. He said: “I see that all this cannot simply go on. If I was forced tomorrow to use my authority it would lead to a lot of bloodshed … I have never betrayed my country and so it is better that the president resigns.” Perhaps it is too early for the Georgians to judge the deeds of Eduard Shevardnadze. Most probably, history will give him the place he actually deserves.


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