Eduard Shevardnadze, the foreign minister who helped Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev open their country to the West before the fall of communism in 1991, has died. He was 86.
He died today at noon local time at his residence in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, Shevardnadze’s former aide, Marina Davitashvili, said by telephone. No cause of death was given.
Shevardnadze’s life tracked the political turbulence that swept the Soviet Union before and after its collapse. He started in the 1970s as a corruption-fighting Communist Party boss in Georgia, then a Soviet republic in the Caucasus region. In 1985, as Gorbachev’s surprise choice for the post of foreign minister, he helped lead policy initiatives that would end the Cold War.
“He was an extraordinary, talented person,” Gorbachev said in a statement on the website of the Gorbachev Foundation. “Shevardnadze was a major politician. He made a serious contribution to the foreign policy of perestroika, and was a sincere supporter of the new thinking in world affairs.”
In 1992, Shevardnadze returned home to Georgia, a newly independent country of 5 million people then emerging from a devastating civil war. He led the fledgling state for 11 years until the Rose Revolution -- street protests against corruption -- pushed him from office.
His record as leader of an independent Georgia was marred by conflicts, particularly in the region of Abkhazia where Georgia initially attempted to re-establish its authority by force. In 2003, the Abkhazians, with the tacit support of Russian peacekeeping troops, pushed the Georgian population out of the province, creating a flood of 300,000 refugees.
Separatist tensions continued to fester until a war broke out with Russia five years later. Russia routed Georgia’s army in a five-day war in August 2008 over the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, later recognizing its independence.
Known as the “Silver Fox,” Shevardnadze was a shrewd political negotiator, whose career was marked by contradiction. He was a Georgian patriot who joined the Soviet leadership, and a Soviet loyalist who helped dismantle the system. He was an internationally recognized figure who immersed himself in local politics. As Georgian leader, he was distrustful of Russian ambitions in the Caucasus. Yet in 1994 he signed a military cooperation treaty that allowed Russia to keep three military bases in his native country.
“His contribution in reshaping Georgia’s role in global geopolitics is undeniable,” Georgian Premier Irakli Garibashvili said in an e-mailed statement. “He was the prominent and important politician with a name closely associated with the end of the Cold War era, establishing a new world order.”
As a private citizen, Shevardnadze kept in touch with his one-time international partners, namely James Baker, the former U.S. secretary of state, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German foreign minister, and occasionally attended international conferences. Inside Georgia, he was effectively shunned as his successor, former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, purged the government of Shevardnadze supporters and disparaged his political legacy.
Going back to Georgia was “the most difficult step in my life,” Shevardnadze told the New York Times in 1992. “I know that I am taking a risk making this step, but I can say that I am morally satisfied,” he said.
He was elected president with 70 percent of the vote in November 1995.
Shevardnadze was born on Jan. 25, 1928, in Mamati, western Georgia. The son of a teacher, he was educated at the state pedagogical institute in Kutaisi. He joined the Communist Party in 1948 and became Georgia’s internal affairs minister in 1968.
Shevardnadze was one of the first Soviet leaders to recognize the failings of an increasingly sclerotic system. Interviewed by the Russian dissident Lev Timofeyev for a 1992 book, “Russia’s Secret Rulers,” Shevardnadze said the battle against corruption had opened his eyes. “I sought the sources for these ills and found them in the system itself.”
As a member of Gorbachev’s team, Shevardnadze used his influence to push glasnost, or openness, in domestic affairs as well as foreign policy.
It was under his aegis that “Repentance,” by Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze, an evocative film about tyranny and the Stalin-era labor camps, was released in 1987, shattering the taboo that had kept Soviet political crimes secret.
Shevardnadze resigned as foreign minister in 1990, warning of a coming dictatorship. Eight months later, in August 1991, a group of Soviet hard-liners staged a coup against Gorbachev that failed, triggering the breakup of both the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.
He later said he had quickly understood that the principle of self-determination, which he and Gorbachev had allowed for the countries of eastern Europe, was sure to be awakened in the Soviet republics as well.
“Of course, it should have been recognized two or three or even four years earlier,” he said. “But Gorbachev, my friend, was late.”
Shevardnadze’s role in the dissolution of the Soviet empire earned him the enmity of members of the Russian elite, especially among the military, who were widely suspected of provocations against Georgia and of assassination attempts.
In an interview with the Russian weekly newspaper Argumenty i Facty in 2005, Shevardnadze defended his loyalty to the Americans. “You ask why we like America,” he said. “When we were going through tough times, and were literally starving to death, Bush Senior -- see his portrait on the wall? -- ordered the United States to send us several hundred thousand tons of grain by ship and airplane.”
“Eduard Shevardnadze will have an honored place in history because he and Mikhail Gorbachev refused to support the use of force to keep the Soviet empire together,” Baker, who was U.S. secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, said in a written statement today. “Many millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe and around the world owe their freedom to them.”
After his ouster as Georgian leader, Shevardnadze lived in his house outside Tbilisi, where he wrote his memoirs, “Thoughts on the Past and the Future,” published first in Georgia in 2006 and later in Germany.
Shevardnadze’s wife, Nanuli, died in 2004. They had a daughter, Manana, and a son, Paata.