For several years after his ouster in Georgia's November 2003 Rose Revolution, Eduard Shevardnadze lived quietly outside Tbilisi and rarely spoke to the press. But over the past year he has spoken out with increasing frequency, not only criticizing the present Georgian leadership but candidly admitting to his own grave errors of judgment.
Most of Shevardnadze's more interesting comments have been published in five interviews over the past three months with the newspaper "Asaval-Dasavali" (Whereabouts), highlights from which were circulated by Caucasus Press.
He set the tone in the first of those interviews, on August 16, in which he claimed that no truly free and fair elections have been held in Georgia "for a long time." It has been argued that the "cleanest" elections in Georgia since 1992 were the simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in November 1995, when Shevardnadze was first elected president.
In no fewer than three interviews (August 16, August 3, and November 1) Shevardnadze predicted that Georgia was on the verge of a social upheaval, with up to 50 percent of the population out of work, and that the recent increase in the price of bread could trigger a revolt. On November 1, he attributed the fact that such an uprising had not yet taken place to the Georgian people's capacity for tolerance, a capacity he warned the authorities not to abuse. He described as "a catastrophe" the inexorable growth in Georgia's total foreign debt, which now stands at some $8 billion.
Shevardnadze has generally been circumspect in his criticisms of current President Mikheil Saakashvili. But in his November 9 interview, he criticized Saakashvili for quietly removing the study of religion from school curricula in order to devote more time to the study of English. He described as "significant" and "speaking volumes" the acceptance by the International Criminal Court in The Hague of a suit filed against Saakashvili by lawyer Shalva Khachapuridze for violations of human rights and international conventions.
On November 9, Shevardnadze said he personally considered it "clear as day" that former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili were both murdered, although he has no evidence to prove it. A former parliament speaker and Shevardnadze protege, Zhvania was found dead in February 2005 in circumstances that have never been adequately explained. His brother too has said he is certain Zurab was murdered, and that the Georgian authorities are shielding the perpetrator.
Patarkatsishvili died in London, reportedly of heart failure, in February 2008 at the age of 52.
Shevardnadze has also criticized Georgian foreign policy, specifically the deployment of Georgian servicemen to serve with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and Saakashvili's recent decision to abolish the visa requirement for residents of Russia's North Caucasus republics who wish to visit Georgia for up to 30 days. He said the latter decision could result in Georgia becoming "a haven for terrorists."
Looking back over his years as Georgia's head of state, Shevardnadze has pointed to two crucial errors of judgment on his part that changed the course of the country's post-Soviet history. Shevardnadze admitted to Caucasus Press in August 2009 that he could and should have averted the incursion into Abkhazia 17 years earlier by the renegade National Guard by himself traveling to Sukhumi for talks with then-Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba. His failure to do so resulted in a full-scale war that ended with the mass exodus of Georgians from Abkhazia in 1993 and the central government's effective loss of control over the region, which Russia formally recognized as an independent state in August 2008.
The second shortcoming, to which Shevardnadze confessed to "Asaval-Dasavali" in January 2010, was his failure to bring up his proteges -- including Zhvania and Saakashvili -- in such a way that they carried on the work of restoration he had begun, instead of "proceeding to destroy the country."
* The mass exodus of Georgians from Abkhazia occurred in 1993, not 2003.