Obituary: Eduard Shevardnadze / Ex-Soviet Foreign Minister, former Georgia leader

Jan. 25, 1928 - July 7, 2014

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Eduard Shevardnadze, who as Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister helped hone the “new thinking,” foreign and domestic, that transformed and ultimately rent the Soviet Union, then led his native Georgia through its turbulent start as an independent state, died Monday. He was 86.

His spokeswoman, Marina Davitashvili, confirmed the death but gave no other details.

Mr. Shevardnadze was forced from office in 2003 by the Rose Revolution, in which Georgians vented their frustration with the corrupt post-Soviet system that he had presided over. His ouster set in motion a period of government reform that saw Georgia become a darling of the West under his successor, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Mr. Shevardnadze had spent his working life as a Communist official when Mr. Gorbachev called him on June 30, 1985, with a proposition that startled him: Would he manage the foreign policy of one of the two most powerful countries in the world?

As Mr. Shevardnadze recounted the call in his memoirs, “The Future Belongs to Freedom” (1991), he stammered that he had no experience in diplomacy, other than hosting foreign delegations as the top Communist official in the Soviet republic of Georgia. He had visited just nine countries and spoke no foreign languages. And, he asked Mr. Gorbachev, shouldn’t the foreign minister be Russian?

“The issue is already decided,” Mr. Gorbachev answered. Mr. Shevardnadze was to report to work the next day.

“The decision to make Shevardnadze foreign minister was the first obvious display of Gorbachev’s remarkable political creativity,” Robert Kaiser wrote in “Why Gorbachev Happened: His Triumphs, His Failure, and His Fall” (1991).

In his memoirs, Mr. Gorbachev, whose title was general-secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, said that “experienced people” had understood his thinking: He had assured himself “a free hand in foreign policy by bringing in a close friend and associate.”

Together, the two men revolutionized Soviet foreign policy. They withdrew troops from Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union had waged a fruitless war; negotiated treaties on medium-range and strategic nuclear arms; took military forces out of Europe and away from the China border; allowed the reunification of Germany; and accepted human rights as part of policy discussions.

Mr. Shevardnadze was architect, spokesman and negotiator for the new policy, and the white-haired visage that earned him the nickname Silver Fox was nearly ubiquitous on the world stage from 1985 to 1991. The magazine The New Leader said in 2004 that his diplomatic accomplishments had been equal to those of Mr. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan.

Part of his success was forging relationships with U.S. Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker, who became proponents of reconciliation in administrations that were intensely anti-Soviet. Just as difficult, Mr. Shevardnadze helped convince Soviet hard-liners that it was time for rapprochement with the United States.

Mr. Shevardnadze was actually in the process of renouncing his Communist past. He had come to believe that the ideology was both wrong and doomed. In 1988, he was the first Soviet official to say that the clash with capitalism no longer mattered — an act of “true ‘sedition’ in the eyes of the official ideologues,” Mr. Gorbachev said in his “Memoirs” (1995).

Mr. Shevardnadze’s revisionist thinking outpaced that of Mr. Gorbachev. “He thought he was refining socialism while I was no longer a socialist,” Mr. Shevardnadze told The New York Times Magazine in 1993.

Mr. Shevardnadze became worried that Mr. Gorbachev was falling under the influence of the hard-liners. He ultimately shocked his boss by resigning on Dec. 20, 1990, warning, “Dictatorship is coming.” After a botched coup attempt by hard-liners in August 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved itself on Dec. 26, 1991. It was the victim of economic chaos, political opposition from many of the constituent republics and chaos in the Kremlin.

Three months later, Mr. Shevardnadze agreed to head the council governing Georgia after a coup there. He was elected president in 1995 and helped hold his country together, establish democratic reforms and stabilize the economy.

He survived assassination attempts in 1992, 1995 and 1998, without suffering serious injury.

His second term, won in 2000, was a disaster, as armed civil clashes proliferated, the economy deteriorated and cronyism and corruption flourished. He resigned on Nov. 24, 2003, after protesters’ chants of “Get out! Get out! Get out!”

The proximate cause of Mr. Shevardnadze’s fall was his involvement in rigged elections in 2002 and 2003, a violation of the electoral reform laws that he had sponsored. His own Supreme Court invalidated the elections.

“When he came back to Georgia, in many ways he was a tired man,” said Mr. Saakashvili, who left office as Georgia’s president in 2013. “There was lots of corruption. There was lots of criminality. People remember it as a time when a lot of people in Georgia could not get a lot of electricity. By the time he ended his presidency, he was very wealthy — his family was the wealthiest — and that’s a fact of life. It was a very complex time, and it’s up to history to judge.”

Eduard Amvrosiyevich Shevardnadze was born in the village of Mamati, Georgia, on Jan. 25, 1928.

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