Presiding at failed regimes

SUN JOURNAL

Georgia: Eduard A. Shevardnadze's decision to step down as president without bloodshed echoes his restraint as the Iron Curtain fell in 1980s.

November 24, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - In the end, Eduard A. Shevardnadze will be remembered best for what he did not do.

Shevardnadze, the 75-year-old former Soviet foreign minister, became a hero when he refused to send tanks in to halt the collapse of Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990.

Yesterday he may have again prevented disastrous fighting, this time by resigning from the presidency of his native Georgia rather than ordering loyal troops to attack tens of thousands of opposition protesters occupying government buildings.

"I see that all this cannot simply go on," the pale and clearly exhausted president said on Georgian state television. "If I was forced tomorrow to use my authority, it would lead to a lot of bloodshed. I have never betrayed my country, and so it is better that the president resigns."

Now the only question is whether Shevardnadze will feel safe enough to remain in his native land, or whether he will flee to a $13 million estate his family has reportedly bought in the German resort of Baden-Baden.

Shevardnadze is still admired in Germany permitting the peaceful reunification of east and west after the Berlin Wall fell in 1990.

But if Shevardnadze was a master at avoiding conflicts abroad, he struggled unsuccessfully to rule effectively at home. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he returned to Georgia to end a bloody civil war and try to rescue his homeland from chaos.

Yet during his more than 11 years in power, Georgia grew poorer, more corrupt and more violent. Without the oil and gas resources of Russia and some of the other former Soviet states, Georgia had nothing to fall back on when its antiquated Soviet factories closed or were cut up for scrap steel. There were electrical and gas shortages. Even rich farmland lay fallow, for lack of money for fertilizer and equipment.

Shevardnadze also blamed Russian security services for inspiring two assassination attempts against him in the 1990s. And the Russian military has repeatedly delayed removing its troops from Georgian bases, where they have been since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The West tried to help. The United States poured in more than $1 billion in aid in recent years and is spending $200 million to train and equip a professional Georgian army.

Yet Shevardnadze could not heal his fractured nation. Two districts, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, along the northern border sought to break away from Georgia and reunite with Russia. The predominantly Muslim Ajaria region, on the Turkish border, became a de facto autonomous state.

The wild Pankissi Gorge became notorious as a rest and recreation area for fighters from neighboring Chechnya and, American diplomats alleged, for a small band of al-Qaida operatives.

If anyone should have been prepared to lead a post-Soviet Georgia, it was Shevardnadze.

He was the son of a schoolteacher and his wife. They lived in the Southern California-like setting of the rolling farmlands near the Black Sea, in a village called Mamati.

An ambitious young man, Shevardnadze quickly rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, becoming in turn the leader of Georgia's Komsomol, or young Communists league; the head of its KGB; and then first secretary of its Communist Central Committee. By the late 1970s, he was a top-ranking party member in Moscow.

Shevardnadze, or "Shevy" to friends and detractors, saw firsthand the rot at the heart of the Soviet system during the long tenure of Leonid I. Brezhnev. And in 1985 he gave his enthusiastic support to the new Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policies of perestroika, or economic reform, and glasnost, or "openness," the easing of restrictions on free expression.

Gorbachev, in turn, promoted Shevardnadze to membership in the ruling Politburo and named him foreign minister. One of the suave arch-bureaucrat's most important jobs was negotiating the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988.

He also hammered out new arms treaties with the United States and - perhaps most important - made sure hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops stayed in their barracks as the Warsaw Pact regimes fell across Eastern Europe.

Shevardnadze resigned in December 1990, noting the rise of anti-reform forces in the Kremlin. But after the failed coup by hard-line Communists in 1991, he returned to his job as foreign minister.

The job lasted just more than a month. On Dec. 25 of that year, the Soviet Union dissolved.

That January, a bloody coup in Tbilisi toppled the first democratically elected Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Shevardnadze returned in March as chairman of the State Council, making him the chief of state. He wasn't formally elected president until 1995.

In the West, Shevardnadze was seen as a symbol of stability, the model of the enlightened statesman. Even today, at 75, he still has the same erect posture, silver hair and air of command that he had when he stood on Lenin's tomb during parades in Red Square.

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