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Eduard Shevardnadze, Former Georgian President, Dies

  • Antoine Blua

Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Georgian president and Soviet foreign minister, died on July 7 at the age of 86.

In the course of his decades-long career, Shevardnadze went through numerous incarnations, seamlessly transforming himself from a tough Soviet Communist Party boss to the reformist perestroika-era foreign minister who helped end the Cold War to president of an independent Georgia.

His political career ended abruptly on November 23, 2003, when he resigned at the peak of Georgia's "Rose Revolution," a popular uprising sparked by disputed parliamentary elections:

"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, as jubilant opposition supporters cheered his fall from power. "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 on January 25, 1928 in the Guria region of what was then the Transcaucasian Republic of the USSR. He joined the Communist Party in 1948 at the age of 20 and rose steadily through the ranks.

He boosted his career when, as First Secretary of a district in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, he exposed corruption by the city's top Communist official. Shevardnadze was promoted to Interior Ministry of Soviet Georgia in 1965, where -- with Moscow's support -- he continued his anti-corruption campaign, arresting tens of thousands of party and KGB officials.

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In 1972, Shevardnadze became First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, the republic's effective ruler, a post he held until becoming Soviet Foreign Minister in 1985.

Amid growing nationalistic sentiment in Georgian society, Shevardnadze angered many of the republic due to his controversial efforts to demonstrate loyalty to Moscow -- including raising the profile of the Russian language.

Shevardnadze burst onto the world stage in 1985 when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev named him foreign minister. As Gorbachev's top foreign policy official, Shevardnadze oversaw the warming of Soviet relations with the West that eventually led to the end of the Cold War.

WATCH: Shevardnadze Survives Assassination Attempt

In a landmark speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 1987, he lauded arms control efforts between Moscow and Washington and called for a world free of nuclear weapons.

"The Soviet Union and the United States of America have finally pronounced together the first word of a nonnuclear lexicon," he told the assembly. "When that word becomes deeds, the world will acquire new knowledge. It will be convinced that nuclear arms and security are not synonyms and that security will be strengthened when these weapons disappear."

Back To Georgia

He also played a key role in the withdrawal of Soviet military forces in Afghanistan in 1989 and in Moscow's decision not to suppress the democratic uprisings throughout the Soviet Union's Eastern European satellites the same year.

Amid increasing differences with Gorbachev over the pace and direction of reform, Shevardnadze resigned as foreign minister on December 20, 1990, warning of a "creeping dictatorship" and accusing the Soviet leader of backsliding on efforts to democratize the country.

"I am resigning. Do not react, do not rebuke me. Let it be my contribution, if you wish, my protest against the dictatorship that is coming," he said. "I cannot conform to the events taking place in our country and with the ordeals our people will face. I still believe, I believe, that dictatorship will have no chance and future will be with democracy and freedom."

WATCH: Rose Revolution Ousts Eduard Shevardnadze

Eight months later, in August 1991, Shevardnadze's words appeared prophetic when hardliners in the Communist Party and KGB staged a coup against Gorbachev -- a failed effort that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After the failed coup, Shevardnadze briefly served again as Soviet Foreign Minister for one month until the USSR formally dissolved in December 1991.

Shevardnadze later returned to his native Georgia. In 1992, he stepped in to fill a power vacuum after the presidency of the newly independent country's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, collapsed amid massive civil and political unrest.

PHOTOS: Eduard Shevardnadze -- From Cold War Hero To Fallen Leader

Shevardnadze was elected chairman of Georgia's parliament, the effective head of state, in 1992. When the presidency was restored, he won a five-year term in 1995. He was re-elected in 2000 amid widespread claims of vote rigging.

His presidency was marred, however, by high crime, rampant corruption, and widespread poverty. He survived three assassination attempts, in 1992, 1995, and 1998.

His presidency -- and political career -- ended with the so-called Rose Revolution, which was triggered by disputed parliamentary elections held on November 2, 2003. After weeks of street demonstrations, crowds broke into parliament on November 23 as Shevardnadze was addressing its first session, forcing the president to flee with his bodyguards and resign.

After his resignation, Shevardnadze retired peacefully in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

In December 2003, the deposed leader explained to RFE/RL his views about ruling a country:

"Ruling the country is not an ordinary business, but this is an art, a science," he said. "Not everyone can rule a country. I have great experience in ruling the country, but it would not be true if I say that I ruled the country in an ideal way."

Shevardnadze is survived by a daughter, Manana, and a son, Paata.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.
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