When Eduard Shevardnadze died on 7th July the tectonic plates barely moved in the international media. That evening, the anchor on the BBC News 24 network fumbled with his notes — and, obviously his memory — to say something of interest. In the end it all boiled down to Shevardnadze’s role in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union. And that is where the obituaries have remained stuck — in the world of the happy ending brought about in 1991 by Gorbachev and his foreign minister.
Shevardnadze’s eleven years in power as president of Georgia is barely mentioned, apart from his overthrow in November 2003 during the inappropriately named ‘rose revolution’. After that ‘Shevy’, (as he was known, if not entirely affectionately) disappeared into the shadows. Over the past ten years he gave a few interviews but so far, there have been no new memoirs nor any sign of an official biography. For someone who is meant to have changed the course of history, his passing has — to say the least — been underwhelming.
Some of the reasons for this may be purely personal: as a diplomat Shevardnadze was no Talleyrand, Metternich, or even Lord Curzon. He spoke no foreign languages, dressed simply, and apparently stayed loyal to his wife of 50 years, Nanuli. Neither was there any indication of wit or wisdom. In the guttural tones of his native Georgian, Shevardnadze would just rumble along, saying very little. When he was Washington’s best friend he received a plethora of gifts and prizes which must have netted him a tidy nest egg, but in old age he lived simply in a small detached house on the edge of Tbilisi with little fancy security.
What, then, were Shevardnadze’s achievements leaving aside his role in bringing about Fukuyama’s "end of history"? Perhaps it’s time to draw up a score card and determine whether he was — as alleged by his fans — an early communist reformer whose liberalism led him to disown the USSR, but, who fell from power in his native Georgia by remaining too close to Moscow orientated holdovers.
Shevardnadze became communist party boss of Georgia in 1972 and embarked upon an anti-corruption drive, arresting thousands of place-holders and replacing them with fresh faces. Such cleaning of the Augean stables received much praise — even abroad — but it was far from unique. The revolving door of regime change in Georgia continues to this day as those in power purge their predecessors, only to be targeted themselves by the next apparat. The mafia still thrived, even if toned down somewhat from Shevardnadze’s more flamboyant predecessor, Vasil Mzhavanadze. What about the arts? Wasn’t Shevardnadze supposed to be some kind of Renaissance prince? He was certainly fêted by the “red intelligentsia” who were given, apparently, a freer hand with the Soviet censor. The evidence for this seems to consist of his support for the film Repentance, a none too subtle allegory of Stalinism. I remember going to see it at a local arts cinema in Oxford in the late 1980s. A whole row was filled with the university’s leading intellectuals, including the late Isaiah Berlin. But, even then, it seemed pretentious and laboured. Surely by now the average Soviet citizen knew that Stalin was a bad lot, without this tedious pseudo-allegory.
After the collapse of the USSR, Shevardnadze, now without a job, returned to Georgia to pick up the pieces following the brief and controversial presidency of Zviad Gamsakhurdia ended in a violent coup as the Soviet Union fell apart in December 1991. In the chaos, small wars had also broken out in two of Georgia’s autonomous provinces, while large areas in the west of the country were still in the hands of Gamsakhurdia loyalists. With the help of the mafia, and massive support from the US and Germany, Shevardnadze came to power in a fraudulent and stage managed election in October 1992. He pacified the country, mainly with the help of the local mafia (known in Georgian as the mekhedrioni: horsemen) and managed to reach a ceasefire in the region of South Ossetia. However the war in the other troublesome place, the republic of Abkhazia, started by Shevardnadze to bring it to heel, was far more devastating. The president even ordered six deserters to be shot despite abolishing the death penalty in Georgia itself. Abkhazia managed to escape from Georgia’s clutches altogether and twenty years later (with South Ossetia) it is still outside the country’s control.
It is difficult to explain the nastiness, chaos and tension that accompanied Shevardnadze’s first five years in power. Georgia’s economy had collapsed; gunfire punctuated the night sky in the capital, Tbilisi, where there was next to no heating or electricity. Many people lived in fear of the mkhedrioni thugs who roamed around, settling scores with rival groups or seeking out former Gamsakhurdia supporters who would be arrested, imprisoned and beaten. Such people were educated, professional types who had no previous acquaintance with violence, but, they received no support from any of the growing number of western carpetbaggers, diplomats and the inevitable NGO types who flooded into the country during the 1990s. Least of all, did they receive a warm embrace from Eduard Shevardnadze.
By 1995 Georgia had a new constitution under which Shevardnadze was elected president. Perhaps life got marginally better for people — at least, the violence was toned down with the arrest of the chief mafia boss (and Shevardnadze protégé) Jaba Joseliani, also in 1995. The prisons were still filling up, now with Jaba’s ex-supporters as the remaining Zviadists began to be released, no longer viewed as a threat to the regime. But the electricity supply for ordinary people remained temperamental; tree stumps everywhere were evidence of how the population was keeping warm in, what were often, bitter winters. The economy remained paralysed while numerous Western advisors were burrowing in the local bureaucracy, conspiring to bring the benefits of privatisation and the market economy to the battered population. Politics, meanwhile, was dominated by the president who now led a political party, the Citizens Union. Its inevitable victory in the next few elections was marred by outrageous fraud, but these bogus polls were still hailed as triumphs of Athenian democracy by the myriad groups of foreign observers brought in to whitewash the results.
Meanwhile, Shevardnadze encouraged U.S. and European influence in the country. Although few people had a regular energy supply in the 1990s, he oversaw the construction of a pipeline (led by a western consortium) to transport oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey. In 1999 another foreign company, this time America’s AES, bought Georgia’s electricity distribution company and promptly cut people off for non payment of bills. He also invited in U.S. trainers to modernise the armed forces in preparation for the hoped-for NATO entry. By the turn of the century, Shevy’s popularity with his sponsors seemed to have reached the stratosphere. On top of numerous other gongs and prizes, he was awarded the Enron Prize in 1999, perhaps an unfortunate portent of what was to come as, at this juncture, a colder wind started to blow from the west. Younger Shevardnadze protégés began to agitate for change, pointing out that even the saintly Shevardnadze was harbouring corruption in his ranks. These self-appointed reformers were led by Mikheil Saakashvili, the young Minister of Justice who had worked in the U.S. and who was now — ostentatiously — taking his orders from Washington. To anyone with an eye for the regime-change meme, it was plain that Shevy’s days were numbered.
The opportunity to remove him came with parliamentary elections held in November 2003. Although, for the first time in the history of post communist Georgia, a parliamentary election was held in an orderly and honest fashion, the international community screamed "fraud." The Citizens Union topped the poll, but only just with less than 25% of the vote. However, the antics of the US ambassador, Richard Miles, and visits from NATO’s point man, Lockheed Martin’s Bruce Jackson, to opposition headquarters during the election campaign demonstrated that the die was cast. Manufactured unrest over the alleged fraudulent poll — again fuelled by a new breed of mafiosi based on smuggling via Stalin’s birthplace Gori — led to Shevardnadze’s fall from power. Of course, the Americans had brought about his humiliation, but the final twist of the knife was provided by none other than President Putin who sent his envoy, Igor Ivanov, to Tbilisi with the message that it was time to go. No support would be coming from Moscow, even though Shevy had become less antagonistic to his old alma mater as he sensed Washington’s support draining away.
In the first few months after his fall from power Shevardnadze expressed bitterness about his betrayal to the occasional journalist who visited, even blaming his situation on George Soros and his various acolytes in the country. But, he soon clammed up. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as the regime change engine in Georgia could easily have caught up and delivered him to one of the country’s still monstrous prisons. Silence was undoubtedly the best road to a quiet life. Added to which, Saakashvili took over as president in 2004 (winning a stunning 96% victory, even better than his predecessor’s own 92% in 1992) and soon showed a vindictive streak towards perceived opponents. In the years that followed, many Georgians thought back fondly to Shevardnadze’s day: things were bad then, but at least, they were not as bad as they became under his bumptious, hyperactive successor.
In the end, Shevardnadze’s story is a familiar template for the rise and fall of many regimes and their leaders who lose Washington’s seal of approval. Among the many who have received the treatment are the Shah of Iran, Fernando Marcos, Suharto, Hosni Mubarak, Leonid Kuchma and, even today, struggling to keep control, Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. In Shevardnadze’s favour, the best one can say is that “the worst was yet to come”: he wasn’t as bad as Mikheil Saakashvili. As for his triumph in bringing about the end of the Soviet Union, perhaps the present terrible mess in Ukraine is a salutary lesson in what that entailed. And, the fall out is not over yet.
Christine Stone is co-author of Post-Communist Georgia: A Short History.
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