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Georgia: Shevardnadze, Former Soviet Minister And Georgian Hero, Reaches Political End

  • Don Hill

Eduard Shevardnadze, who resigned under pressure yesterday as Georgia's president, swept to power a decade ago as both Georgian hero and darling of the West. A former Soviet foreign minister, he had the political skills of a chameleon -- switching smoothly from Soviet red to the hue of a democrat. Shevardnadze's political versatility proved to be insufficient, however, to overcome Georgia's massive problems of poverty, instability, and corruption.

Prague, 24 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Dissatisfaction with the government of the Caucasus nation of Georgia mounted rapidly. A general uprising spread until, finally, the president was forced to vacate his office and flee the country. The year was 1992, the ousted president Zvlad Gamsakhurdia.

The Military Council that forced Gamsakhurdia from power -- in a dramatic maneuver -- asked former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to lead a new State Council.

Yesterday, it was Shevardnadze's turn to bow to the inevitable and to relinquish the leadership of Georgia. He did so with as much grace as the circumstances permitted. "Now I see that what is happening would not end without blood if tomorrow I have to exercise the powers that I have in this situation," he said. "I have never been untrue to my people and so now I declare that it is better that the president resign, that everything ends."

Shevardnadze was born in a village in western Georgia in 1928. Georgia had become part of the Soviet Union six years earlier and became a constituent Soviet republic eight years later.

Shevardnadze studied history and set out on a career as a teacher. But he immersed himself early on in Communist Party affairs and advanced through the hierarchy. By 1985, he had attracted notice in Moscow as an enemy of corruption and as an efficient and effective leader of the party in Georgia.

The man who would become known as the "Silver Fox," because of his gray mane and his reputation as a sly and manipulative politician, first came to world attention when USSR communist chief Mikhail Gorbachev appointed him foreign minister.

From the start, his grounding in history showed in the vision he brought to the job. He expressed a conviction that the Soviet Union had to open itself to the international community. He demonstrated enthusiasm for Gorbachev's policy of perestroika.

He left the Foreign Ministry in 1990 as conservative communists mounted increasing opposition to Gorbachev's policies. Gorbachev has remained an admirer. The Interfax news agency quoted the former Soviet leader yesterday as saying of his old comrade's resignation: "I know Eduard Ambrosevich [Shevardnadze] well. He is not easily frightened and no doubt recognized that the moment had come to resign himself to this decision so as not to tear Georgia apart."

Another prominent figure who remembers favorably Shevardnadze's days as Soviet foreign minister is German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In the days leading up to German unification in October 1990, Shevardnadze's support for putting East and West Germany together again was vital. Official Soviet hostility to the move might have delayed, perhaps even killed, unification.

On news of the Georgian president's resignation yesterday, Schroeder's press secretary issued on behalf of the chancellor a statement that Shevardnadze would be welcomed if he decided to live in Germany -- where the former president reportedly owns a home. The German leadership, the statement said, "remembers all that he did for Germany's unification."

Shevardnadze's leadership of Georgia's State Council helped to develop a new government structure after Gamsakhurdia fled. Georgians elected Shevardnadze to the reestablished post of president in October 1992 and re-elected him in 1995.

But his rule was troubled from the start. In 1992, forces loyal to the former president attempted a coup. It was crushed in June. Then, separatist elements in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, launched a bloody rebellion and by late 1993 had gained control of much of the region.

Foreshadowing the crisis that eventually brought Shevardnadze down, opponents charged in 1992 and 1995 that those elections were rigged.

Shevardnadze maintained shaky control of his country by balancing the interests of former communists and cronies. The country's economy never successfully made the transition from communist-style planning to free market. Corruption was rampant, as the president himself acknowledged.

An ardent promoter of aligning Georgia with the West, Shevardnadze pursued NATO membership. On a visit last year to RFE/RL in Prague, he said: "NATO membership means security for Georgia. It means that we will have final security guarantees. Throughout our history, we have seen a lot of hardship and I think today the only right decision is to become a member of NATO."

But even his Westward tilt was not enough in the end to overcome disapproval of Georgia's conduct of this month's parliamentary elections. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, among other observers, denounced the polls as falling short of international standards.

The U.S. State Department, unusually blunt, said the official count that identified Shevardnadze's allies as the winners did not reflect the will of the people. The United States pronounced itself disappointed in Georgia's leadership.

When the word finally came down yesterday that the Silver Fox was giving way, people danced in the streets of the capital Tbilisi.