On March 8, 1990, as I was leaving Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze’s office following a private meeting, he shocked me when he said, “Jack, I’ll tell you one thing. If I see a dictatorship coming, I’m going to resign. I’ll not be part of a government with blood on its hands.”
Having previously dealt with him for five years as White House staff member and US ambassador, I thought I knew him well enough to judge that his words were utterly sincere; what shocked me was the realization that he thought a coup against Gorbachev might be imminent.
We had been talking about Lithuania, and specifically about the prospect that the newly elected Lithuanian parliament would declare independence during the weekend of March 10 and 11. It was no coincidence that the Lithuanians were rushing to issue their declaration before the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies convened on March 12 to consider Gorbachev’s proposal to establish a presidency for the Soviet Union. The Lithuanians felt that it was vital to issue their declaration before Gorbachev assumed the new office, since they believed he intended to use its powers to block their move to independence. For their part, both Gorbachev and Shevardnadze feared that hard-line Soviet military, police, and Party officials would use the Lithuanian declaration as a pretext to remove Gorbachev before he was able to establish a presidency independent of direct Party control. Ironically, Gorbachev’s putative enemies in Moscow viewed him as the ultimate barrier to using force against the Baltic independence movements.
The weekend passed without an attempted coup d’état, and for a time Shevardnadze’s alarm seemed misplaced. But when, in December of the same year, he suddenly announced his resignation with the statement “Adictatorship is coming!” his words of March came back to haunt me. Did he know of a specific plot, or was he simply giving voice to a hunch?
Questioned about this shortly after his resignation, Shevardnadze denied any knowledge of a specific conspiracy; he relied, he said, on his knowledge of how the Soviet system worked. As he put it later in his memoirs, “A dictator’s power has no face or domicile. It is a matter of methods and style.”1 In 1990, Shevardnadze already understood what Mikhail Gorbachev was to learn only in August 1991, when many of his handpicked associates tried to seize power from him.
In 1990 the opposition to perestroika and “the new thinking” in Soviet foreign policy grew rapidly and became more assertive in the higher reaches of the Soviet Communist Party and its two main instruments, the KGB and the military. The respective reactions of President Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to this growing opposition brought to the surface a sharp difference in their characters, a contrast that had been obscured by the unwarranted presumption that they always worked in close harmony. Gorbachev tried to con and co-opt his opponents. Shevardnadze chose to confront them head-on, even at the cost of his job.
Still, resignation was an easier step for Shevardnadze to take than it would have been for Gorbachev at that time, for Shevardnadze could be confident that the work he had accomplished would not be easily undone. Soviet foreign policy was so clearly set on reconciliation with the West that a different course was hardly feasible—and certainly would not have been in Gorbachev’s interest. If Gorbachev had resigned in 1990, he would have risked serious efforts to reverse all the reforms of the four previous years. It would thus be unfair to say that one man acted on principle and the other from opportunism; but it is clear that, at least by 1990, Shevardnadze was prepared, as he had not been for most of his political career, to place morality above expediency, while Gorbachev was still preoccupied with staying in power.
Following his resignation, Shevardnadze spent more than a year in a Moscow think tank he had founded. He briefly returned to his old job of foreign minister; but by the spring of 1992 he was back in his native Georgia faced with the task of ending a vicious civil war and building a national state from its ruins. In another ironic twist of fate, Gorbachev was then sitting forlornly in his own foundation in Moscow, rejected and even vilified by many of his countrymen.
George P. Shultz and James A. Baker, III, both have written extensively about Shevardnadze in their memoirs,2 and both have praised his contribution to the settlements ending the cold war. Nevertheless, up to now historians have concentrated on Mikhail Gorbachev’s role to the virtual exclusion of his foreign minister’s, implying—perhaps unintentionally—that Shevardnadze was little more than a technician, assigned merely to carry out policies Gorbachev had formulated.
A different picture emerges from a close look at the diplomacy of those years. Gorbachev brought Shevardnadze to Moscow in 1985 and asked him to work out a foreign policy to relieve external pressures on the Soviet Union so that it could proceed with internal reform, but it was Shevardnadze who changed the style of Soviet diplomacy. By 1988 he was also ahead of Gorbachev in understanding that the West’s terms for ending the cold war were not contrary to Soviet interests, but were actually consistent with Soviet internal reform. If Gorbachev had been served by a less imaginative and courageous foreign minister it is doubtful that the cold war could have been ended as rapidly and definitively as it was. Even aside from his current role as the founder of a modern Georgian state, Eduard Shevardnadze is one of the most important statesmen of our century. No one who ignores his role can possibly understand how the cold war ended as it did.
Two recent books provide new insights into his character and record. The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze, by Carolyn McGiffert Ekedahl and Melvin A. Goodman, is not quite a full-scale biography, concentrating as it does on Shevardnadze’s activities as Soviet foreign minister, but it is as close to one as we have in English today. It is a diligent compilation and summary of virtually everything that has been written about Shevardnadze in English or Russian, and can be a useful text for anyone who wants to learn more about Shevardnadze’s statesmanship.
My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, by their principal English interpreter, Pavel Palazchenko, is a different sort of book. In no sense a biography of either of its subjects, it nevertheless provides intimate and judicious insights into the personalities, policies, and mind-sets of both. Of all the many memoirs by former Soviet officials, Palazchenko’s is among the best written and also the most objective. Even his descriptions of US policy are more accurate and judicious than those of some American scholars, including Ekedahl and Goodman.
Until Shevardnadze’s resignation in December 1990, his career and Gorbachev’s had moved so much in parallel that the temptation to compare the two is irresistible. Both were born and grew up near the border of the Soviet empire. Gorbachev was of Russian peasant stock, while Shevardnadze’s parents were at least a notch higher on the social scale: his father was a village schoolteacher. Both of their families, and those of their wives, had suffered from Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Both eventually chose careers in the Communist Party apparatus and flourished there, becoming the Party bosses of their respective regions at uncommonly early ages.
There were also differences. Gorbachev was a Russian, while Shevardnadze was a Georgian for whom Russian was a second language, spoken with an ineradicable accent. Gorbachev’s specialty was agriculture and Shevardnadze’s law enforcement. Gorbachev had the much harsher childhood, since the German occupation of his village was followed by famine, while both misfortunes bypassed Soviet Georgia where Shevardnadze lived. Gorbachev went to Moscow University while all of Shevardnadze’s training was in Georgia, at a Communist Party institute and a provincial teacher’s college, neither with academic standards to match those at major Soviet universities.
These differences, however, did not prevent them from becoming friends from their first meeting at a conference of the Young Communist League, or Komsomol, in Moscow. The two had similar responsibilities as Komsomol, and then Party, officials in neighboring regions, and as their friendship grew, so did a similar attitude toward the Soviet political system. By the late 1970s both had come to the conclusion, expressed only to their closest friends, that the Communist system should be changed, or—as they put it to each other at that time—“We can’t go on like this.” Their estrangement from the system they served seems to have occurred at about the same time, and for much the same reasons, although some events made a greater impression on one than on the other.
For Shevardnadze, the most traumatic event was the bloody suppression of a peaceful demonstration in Tbilisi in 1956, when Georgians took to the streets to protest Nikita Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin. No defender of Stalin (at least later in his career), Shevardnadze was nevertheless shocked that troops were ordered to fire from tanks and use machine guns against a peaceful demonstration. When he was himself the first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, he had to deal with several mass demonstrations, but he never authorized the use of force. Instead, he negotiated with the demonstrators and usually produced at least some concessions from Moscow—such as a new university for the Abkhazia region—to calm them down. Much later, in December 1989, his rift with Gorbachev began over Gorbachev’s handling of the investigation into the forcible suppression of Georgian demonstrators in April of that year.3
Shevardnadze’s pre-Moscow career is more controversial than Gorbachev’s. While Gorbachev had made a name for himself as a specialist in agriculture, Shevardnadze became famous for his prosecution of criminals, including black-marketeers. During his tenure as Georgian minister of internal affairs in the 1960s and early 1970s he sent thousands to jail and had some criminals executed. He did not shirk investigating his corrupt Party superior, First Secretary Vasili Mzhavanadze, and was named by Moscow to succeed Mzhavanadze in 1972, just two years after Mikhail Gorbachev was made Party chief in Stavropol Territory.
Ekedahl and Goodman quote many damning reports of Shevardnadze’s activities as Georgian interior minister and Party chief. They repeatedly say he was “brutal” and “ruthless” at the time, and write that “his climb to the top of the Communist Party displayed ambitious careerism and crass opportunism.” He was, they say, “responsible for the arrest, torture, and execution of thousands of extortionists and black-marketeers, as well as numerous dissidents and Georgian nationalists.” These statements are based on contemporary reports by dissidents and Shevardnadze’s political rivals, which the authors cite without critical examination. For example, they tell us, “As interior minister, Shevardnadze arrested more than 25,000 people, including 17,000 members of the Communist Party…,” but their secondary source for these figures4 gives no indication of what they are based on. The same estimates are to be found in Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s 1985 study of Soviet dissent, which derived them from a samizdat document.5 As useful as samizdat was during the Soviet period in providing information about the dissident movement and Soviet abuses, statistics quoted in these informal publications were normally based on hearsay and frequently unreliable.
In this instance, the figures are almost certainly greatly exaggerated. According to Gela Charkviani, Shevardnadze’s policy adviser, Georgian Party archives indicate that 3,472 persons were expelled from the Communist Party in Georgia from 1965 to 1972. 6 Since expulsion from the Party was obligatory when criminal charges were brought against a member, the figure Ekedahl and Goodman give for Party members arrested is nearly five times the most likely maximum number.
The accusation that Shevardnadze was unusually brutal as Georgian Party leader—that is, more so than his counterparts in other Soviet republics—does not square with what is known of his performance in other respects. Georgia during the 1970s and early 1980s was noticeably freer and more relaxed than other republics, as visitors during that period, including myself, can confirm. Not only did Shevardnadze refuse to suppress demonstrations by force, in contrast to neighboring regions, but Jewish emigration was less restricted from Georgia than from any other part of the Soviet Union. Shevardnadze encouraged the exposure of Stalinist tyranny when he authorized the director Tengiz Abuladze to make his film Repentance, which was then impounded on Moscow’s order until Shevardnadze was able, after moving to Moscow, to convince Gorbachev that it should be shown. When it was, it became one of the most important signals to the public that perestroika was for real.
Ekedahl and Goodman do nothing to resolve such conflicting evidence. Any future biography of Shevardnadze should devote more research to his life before 1985, and this will require the use of Georgian-language materials not drawn on by Ekedahl and Goodman. Shevardnadze himself has often remarked how hard it was to change his own behavior, and expressed regret that he could not find the courage earlier to stand up for the principles he later defended. Some two years after he came to Moscow as foreign minister, he confided in Vitaly Korotich, an old friend who was then editing the Russian weekly Ogonyok, that he had to force himself every day to do things his entire political career had taught him not to do.7 In his The Future Belongs to Freedom, he remarked poignantly, “To this day, I can muster the determination to act in an uncompromising manner only after a long struggle with myself.”8
In fact there is still no convincing evidence to support charges that Shevardnadze was driven by ruthless ambition, or that he personally ordered people to be tortured. The prosecutions of the 1960s that brought him to power were primarily against real criminals, and not against dissidents. During the 1970s, when he was Party chief, many nationalists and dissidents were imprisoned in Georgia; but it should also be said that this occurred after Moscow had started a campaign against ideological dissent, and took place slightly later in Georgia than in other republics. Nor were dissidents treated any more harshly in Georgia than elsewhere. It is far from clear that Shevardnadze should be held personally responsible for the acts of the Georgian KGB at that time, even though he subsequently reproached himself for not opposing the anti-dissident campaign and not doing more to protect those who were unjustly accused.
It is true that Shevardnadze continued to express obedience to Moscow to the point of sycophancy. His praise for the Communist leaders not only helped him to keep his job; it also created for him some room to maneuver, as when he authorized relatively free Jewish emigration and won concessions for demonstrators. However, it was not until he was called to Moscow in 1985 and promoted to full membership in the Politburo that he was able to make more than a marginal difference in the way the system worked.
When he summoned Shevardnadze, Gorbachev had already decided that he did not want another Andrei Gromyko, a “Mr. Nyet,” for a foreign minister. He also did not want a foreign minister whose experience and prestige would overshadow his own. So he reached outside Moscow’s diplomatic circles and, to the surprise of everyone including his nominee, picked his old friend from the Caucasus.
Shevardnadze brought an instant change to Soviet diplomatic style. Even before he had time to learn, much less alter, Soviet policies, his manner conveyed a different, more human approach. His first meeting with Secretary of State Shultz, which occurred in Helsinki a bare month after he took office, was a revelation to the American participants. He went over the agenda in a crisp, business-like fashion with none of the take-it-or-leave-it bluster characteristic of his predecessor. He came across as someone interested in solving problems rather than a dogmatic ideologue. When Secretary Shultz prodded him on human rights in their private meeting, he avoided the traditional Soviet response, which was to say, “Keep your nose out of our business.” He asked Shultz, “When I come to the United States, should I talk about unemployment and blacks?” Shultz responded, “Help yourself.”
He worked extremely long hours and mastered the full range of Soviet foreign policy issues in a few months. He also began to bring forward some of the younger, more Western-minded diplomats to replace those who seemed unlikely to adapt to the new style. Nevertheless, from mid-1985, when Shevardnadze took office as foreign minister, until the fall of 1986, changes in Soviet foreign policy were hardly noticeable, despite the warmer feelings produced by the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva in November 1985. When the two presidents met next in Reykjavik in October 1986, however, Gorbachev came with proposals for radical arms reductions which met the most basic US demands with one important exception: Gorbachev’s insistence that research on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) be confined to laboratories, thereby barring any testing or deployment in space. Reagan rejected Gorbachev’s attractive set of proposals for that reason and the meeting ended in bitterness and disappointment, made the more intense by the high expectations that had been raised when the two seemed on the point of agreement.
Up to the time of the meeting in Reykjavik, Soviet foreign policy was largely in Mikhail Gorbachev’s hands, though Shevardnadze’s role and influence were growing. Following Reykjavik, Shevardnadze took the lead in conceiving a policy that would permit the Soviet Union to emerge from the isolation of the cold war. He received Gorbachev’s endorsement and backing at every important point along the way, but the initiative was his.
Shevardnadze seems to have recognized earlier than Gorbachev that arms reduction agreements alone could not put an end to the tension, distrust, and hostility that had created and fed the arms race. He looked carefully at the four-part agenda the Reagan Administration had proposed—arms reduction, eliminating military competition in the third world, protecting human rights, and improving contacts and communication, a euphemism for bringing down the Iron Curtain. He decided that these aims made sense, since they were consistent with the reforms he and Gorbachev wanted for Soviet society. Thanks to Shevardnadze, from 1987 the United States and Soviet Union had a common set of goals.
At first, Shevardnadze’s initiatives were most apparent in a changed Soviet attitude toward protecting human rights. When Shultz presented him with a list of refuseniks and political prisoners in a meeting in New York in September 1987, Shevardnadze accepted them with the assurance that he would do his best to see what could be done about them. And then he added, “But, George, I want you to know that I’m not doing this because you ask me to. I’m doing this because it is what my country needs to do.”
He was as good as his word. He established an office in the Foreign Ministry to investigate abuses by other Soviet agencies, even those as powerful as the KGB, and during the following three years saw to it that virtually every violation of human rights we called to his attention was investigated and corrected. This took an enormous effort on his part and that of his staff, particularly in view of the determination of the KGB and other bureaucrats to protect their own turf. Gorbachev, so far as we could tell, did nothing to interfere, but also gave little direct help.
Shevardnadze also did much to settle regional wars and disputes in which both the USSR and the US were involved. While he was in office Soviet and US diplomats were able to act as brokers in peaceful settlements in Angola, Nicaragua, and Namibia; and Shevardnadze took the lead in negotiating the departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, risking his life by flying into Kabul when approaching aircraft were targets for the Stinger missiles supplied by the United States.
Shevardnadze’s efforts to reach specific agreements were accompanied by a successful attack on the ideological cornerstone of previous Soviet foreign policy. Even before Gorbachev was willing to commit himself publicly, Shevardnadze recognized that the goal of peaceful relations with the rest of the world could not be squared with the ideology of the class struggle. So long as Soviet foreign policy was based on the concept of the class struggle, genuine and durable agreements with the West, the “bourgeois” or “imperialist” world, were impossible as a matter of principle. Agreements could only be temporary and superficial.
Shevardnadze, along with his fellow Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, argued throughout 1988 that Soviet foreign policy should be based on the common interests of mankind, not those of the “proletariat” alone. Brushing off opposition by Yegor Ligachev to this revision of Marxist dogma, Gorbachev officially endorsed the Shevardnadze-Yakovlev approach in his speech to the United Nations in December of that year. Though not everyone understood it at the time, this was the signal that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene in Eastern Europe if those countries chose to assert their independence—as they did before the end of 1989.
Shevardnadze also began to take the lead in breaking the logjams in the various arms reduction negotiations. In his meeting with Secretary Baker at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 1989, he agreed that the Soviet positions on strategic arms reduction and the SDI would no longer be linked, giving impetus to negotiations which had dragged on for eight years. The following year he reached agreement with NATO on conventional arms ceilings in Europe, an agreement that displeased the Soviet military. Gorbachev’s failure to prevent his generals from trying to cheat on this agreement was subsequently a factor in Shevardnadze’s resignation.
Shevardnadze’s reaction to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait provides the clearest example of an initiative on his part that forced Gorbachev’s hand. When Secretary Baker came to Moscow on August 3, 1990, in the hope of securing Soviet backing to oppose Iraq’s aggression, he had no advance assurance that Shevardnadze would be willing to overrule his Middle East experts, discard the longstanding Soviet alliance with Iraq, and risk a hostage crisis (thousands of Soviet citizens, mostly military specialists and their families, were in Iraq).
Baker convinced him to back the US during a brief airport meeting, and Shevardnadze signed a joint statement without advance clearance from Gorbachev. The reason he gave shows how far he had come in shedding his apparatchik mentality. He later told Palazchenko that “the first thing” his Middle East experts mentioned “was our treaty of friendship with Iraq. So what? If your friend kills, do you still call him a friend? And do you defend him when he is brought to trial?” While he had good political reasons to change Soviet policy, the decisive factor in his thinking was the principle involved. Gorbachev had no choice except to endorse the approach taken by his foreign minister.
Shevardnadze had a much smaller impact on Soviet domestic policy than on foreign policy, but he understood some issues better than Gorbachev did. As early as November 1988 he confided in Secretary Shultz and a few others around the dinner table in Blair House that the Soviet Union would not survive if it failed to deal more sensitively with its nationality problems. By 1990 he recognized the futility of trying to reform the Communist Party and, along with Alexander Yakovlev, advised splitting it into two, perhaps three, parties, thus automatically creating a multiparty system and forcing those opposed to perestroika into the opposition. Following his resignation as foreign minister, he joined Alexander Yakovlev and other reform-minded politicians to organize the Movement for Democratic Reforms, which was designed to provide Gorbachev with an alternate power base if he should decide to split the Communist Party. Gorbachev ignored the opportunity and thereby passed up a last—though small—chance to keep perestroika on track and preserve some sort of union.
Shevardnadze and Gorbachev are now accused by Russian superpatriots of selling out Soviet interests and causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they have it precisely backwards. The changes in Soviet foreign policy that Shevardnadze conceived and Gorbachev endorsed were all in the Soviet interest. If the cold war had not ended as it did, the Soviet collapse could have become a bloody catastrophe. It was not Shevardnadze’s agreements or advice that caused the Soviet collapse, but Gorbachev’s miscalculations and the short-sighted, self-serving opposition to reform and new thinking on the part of Communist hard-liners.
In the fall of 1991 Shevardnadze’s native Georgia began to collapse as a coherent, organized society. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, elected president by the Georgian legislature in April, soon plunged the country into violence by ordering military action against separatists in South Ossetia, an autonomous region in Georgia. He arrested political opponents, broke with most of his political associates, and provoked armed resistance in Abkhazia, Georgia’s westernmost province, by attempting to abolish its autonomous status. By December, all semblance of law and order had disappeared from most of the country, including Tbilisi, the capital, where the remains of Georgia’s national army and other military formations besieged the parliament building where Gamsakhurdia had taken refuge. During the first week in January 1992 Gamsakhurdia’s opponents formed a military council and announced that they had taken control of the country. Gamsakhurdia himself fled across the Caucasus range to Chechnya, the rebellious province still formally—but only formally—part of the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, Georgia had become a shambles, and the clique of officers that ousted Gamsakhurdia had neither legitimacy, nor foreign recognition, nor the ability to govern. After a few weeks of fruitless negotiation among its members, the military council decided to invite Shevardnadze to return. Two warlords dominated the council, Tengiz Kitovani and Jaba Ioseliani. Kitovani is said to have questioned the wisdom of inviting Shevardnadze to return, asking, “Won’t that be dangerous? He’s smarter than us, you know.” To which Ioseliani supposedly replied, “Yes, you’re right. It’s dangerous. But we have no choice.” Although this story may be apocryphal, they had no choice because they needed Shevardnadze to give the new nation of Georgia international respectability; but they had no intention of allowing him to dominate domestic affairs.
Few observers thought that Shevardnadze could pacify Georgia’s warring factions. When he returned he was the only one of the four most prominent Georgian leaders without a private army. (Even Gamsakhurdia, from his next-door exile in Chechnya, could rally fighters from his native region of Mingrelia.) Shevardnadze had three assets: the respect of foreign leaders, the disgust of most Georgians for the inept, indeed criminal, leadership Georgia had fallen under since independence, and—most notably—his own political skills.
His decision to return must have been a difficult one for him.9 He was particularly concerned about seeming to replace a legally installed president who had been removed by unconstitutional means. As a condition of his return he insisted that the self-appointed military council be replaced by a state council made up of representatives of most political parties and ethnic minorities, and that new elections to parliament be held as soon as they could be organized.
Shevardnadze returned to Tbilisi in March 1992, and in the elections held in October Georgians voted for a new parliament and also separately for the chairman of parliament, who would also be chief of state. As the only serious candidate Shevardnadze received 96 percent of the votes cast. But conditions in the country still bordered on chaos and worse was yet to come with the loss of Abkhazia, from which more than 200,000 refugees arrived in Georgia. The country was on the verge of economic collapse. Both railway lines connecting Georgia with Russia were closed; the currency was debased by runaway inflation rivaling Weimar’s in the 1920s; and there was widespread banditry.
By 1994 most of the fighting had ended, but the economy was prostrate and the government was subjected to a series of political assassinations, culminating, in August 1995, in an attempt on Shevardnadze’s life that came perilously close to succeeding. When this attempt failed the Georgian security chief Igor Giorgadze fled to Russia, and he was subsequently charged by Georgian prosecutors with having organized this and other acts of terrorism. (Up to now, Russia has refused to extradite him to stand trial in Georgia.)
Shevardnadze was leaving the parliament building to sign a new Georgian constitution when the bomb exploded in his motorcade. The constitution restored the office of president, which had been eliminated when Gamsakhurdia was deposed, but with reduced powers. Shevardnadze’s narrow escape brought home to the Georgian public how close they had come to renewed chaos and doubtless helped him to the sweeping victory in the elections that followed in November 1995. He won the presidency against five rivals with nearly three quarters of the vote and his political party, the Union of Citizens of Georgia, won enough seats to take control of parliament.
Shevardnadze reversed his predecessors’ repressive policies toward non-Georgian minorities. He left the administration of the territory of Ajaria in the southwest in local hands, suspending earlier efforts to bring it more directly under Tbilisi’s control. He ended Georgian military action in Ossetia and began negotiations with the Ossetian political leaders that have now brought the parties close to formal agreement. The war in Abkhazia occurred when Kitovani, then the Georgian minister of defense, attacked the Abkhazian parliament in Sukhumi against Shevardnadze’s explicit order. When the tide of battle turned against the Georgians, Shevardnadze joined the Georgian troops in Sukhumi and barely escaped with his life when their headquarters was attacked by Russian Katusha rockets and Chechen shock troops. Nevertheless, as soon as the fighting stopped, Shevardnadze agreed to talks with the Abkhazian leaders, which finally are beginning to offer some hope for a settlement. Until there is an agreement that allows the Georgian refugees to return to their homes, however, Abkhazia will remain Shevardnadze’s most pressing problem.
The 1995 election gave Georgia some political stability. By 1995, too, Georgia’s relations with its neighbors improved radically. When Shevardnadze came home in 1992, Georgia was an international outcast, shunned by everyone because of the chauvinistic excesses of Gamsakhurdia and the military chiefs who for a time supported and then discarded him. By 1995, he had established working relations with all of Georgia’s immediate neighbors, with European countries, West and East, and with the United States. Despite Georgia’s being close to the conflict between Armenians and Azeris over Nagorny-Karabakh and the presence of substantial communities of both ethnic groups in Georgia, Shevardnadze managed to keep good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Trade and political cooperation with Turkey increased rapidly. Cordial relations were established with Iran despite a long history of animosity and the disapproval of the United States.
Bringing Georgia out of international isolation was a remarkable achievement, but both history and geography have determined that Russia is Georgia’s biggest and most troublesome foreign policy problem. Georgia was annexed to the Russian empire less than two centuries ago when its kings sought protection from their Muslim enemies. Georgians suspect that Russia, even today, is not reconciled to Georgian independence, yet they know that conditions will never be peaceful and normal in Georgia unless relations are good with Russia. Local Russian military commanders supported the Abkhazian separatists against Georgian troops in 1992 and 1993, providing air cover and heavy weapons and encouraging (to their subsequent chagrin) the intervention of Chechen forces. Russian secret services are suspected of organizing the 1995 plot against Shevardnadze’s life. Such actions and suspicions reinforce the conviction that Russia is still intent on maintaining its hegemony over the Transcaucasus by divide-and-rule tactics.
Nowhere has Eduard Shevardnadze’s political skill been more evident than in his dealings with Russia. After the loss of Abkhazia in 1993 and renewed attacks by forces loyal to Gamsakhurdia, organized government in Georgia was about to collapse. Shevardnadze went to Moscow and secured Russian military support, but only by bringing Georgia into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and granting Russia military bases in Georgia. Joining the CIS was not a significant concession (though many Georgians thought it was) since the CIS is such a loose organization that it cannot impair Georgia’s sovereignty. Furthermore, Shevardnadze has recently managed to use the CIS to bring pressure to bear on Russia itself, as in March when he convinced its council to insist that Russia help end the Abkhazian secession.
Russian troops helped end Georgia’s civil war and Russian peacekeepers continue to patrol Abkhazia and Ossetia, but Georgians are demanding that Russia put more pressure on the Abkhaz authorities to allow the repatriation of Georgian refugees. Until they do, it is unlikely that the Georgian parliament will ratify the agreement granting bases to Russia. The base agreement, therefore, while a concession to Russia, is also an instrument Georgia is using to encourage Russia to serve Georgian interests as well as its own.
Shevardnadze wants to convince Russia that turmoil in Georgia and its Transcaucasian neighbors will undermine Russia’s ability to bring peace to its own frontiers, as the tragic conflict in Chechnya has shown. If Russia continues to stir up conflicts and ethnic animosities in the region beyond its borders, these will inevitably spill over into Russia itself. Russia needs good relations with Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia as much as they do with Russia. The big question has been whether Russian policy makers are capable of acting from such a perspective. In recent months there have been growing indications that they are. During the summer both President Yeltsin and Russian Foreign Minster Evegeny Primakov took initiatives to mediate the Abkhazian dispute, and their efforts led to an unprecedented meeting in Tbilisi on August 14 between Shevardnadze and Abkhazian secessionist leader Vladislav Ardzimba. The two issued an optimistic joint statement pledging a peaceful solution, which may in fact be feasible if Russia has made clear to the Abkhazians that they must compromise or lose Russian support.
My wife and I spent five days in Tbilisi in May. I had not been there since 1990, but Rebecca had spent a week in Georgia in 1994, photographing the city and countryside as the guest of Georgian television. It had been a sad trip to a city with its center still in ruins from the fighting. Retail trade had practically disappeared, having been replaced by street hawkers and pathetic flea markets, and fuel was so scarce that gasoline was sold by traders out of half-liter jars. There was no electric power most of the day and night, and even Georgia’s fabled wineries were closed for lack of power.
This May, Tbilisi was once again a lively city. With scars, to be sure: damaged buildings are still being rebuilt; refugees are still living in the Hotel Iveria, hanging their wash on its balconies. But it is a city whose streetlights go on at night, whose shops are full of consumer goods, and where relaxed people stroll in the parks in the evening, and churches are crowded even for weekday services.
Georgians will tell you that the country’s revival really began in the fall of 1995 and has moved with astounding speed since then. The irregular military forces that preyed on the country and set off the disastrous war in Abkhazia have been disbanded and their leaders are in jail. Tengiz Kitovani was arrested when he set off for Abkhazia with a personal army. Jaba Ioseliani defied an order to disarm his band of brigands and was implicated in the attempt to assassinate Shevardnadze. When he lost his seat in parliament and with it his immunity from prosecution, he was arrested on charges of illegal possession of arms and conspiracy to assassinate Shevardnadze. The man without the guns indeed turned out to be smarter than the hoodlums who thought they could make him their tool.
With the return of some semblance of order and the installation of a parliament prepared to support reform, the shattered economy began to improve. The government managed to reduce what had been a staggering budget deficit (nearly half the GDP in 1994) and, with help from the International Monetary Fund, it introduced a new currency, the lari, toward the end of 1995. Since then it has held its value—vendors in Tbilisi don’t ask for dollars any more—and has greatly facilitated both trade and investment.
Georgia’s new constitution established a balance between presidential and legislative authority, a rare feature in the former Soviet republics, and by mid-1997 the Georgian parliament was drafting legislation to reform the judicial system and bolster legal protection for private property and commerce. The chairmen of both the relevant committees are not holdovers from the Soviet period, the sort that dominate parliaments in most other ex-Soviet states, but young men with law degrees from Columbia University. One, Mikhail Saakashvili, told us that Shevardnadze doesn’t try to micromanage either the parliament or the government. “He will make proposals, but lets us decide what to do about them.”
Still, corruption is thriving, with officials accepting bribes from people who want state contracts, licenses, or tax exemptions. Unemployment is high, and poverty, particularly among the displaced persons from Abkhazia, is acute. Production is just beginning to revive, and the future of economic development is precariously dependent on construction of an oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Black Sea and completion of other transportation facilities to supplement or, if necessary, replace those running through Russia. Privatization has still hardly begun. The education system has suffered greatly from budget cutbacks and the lack of fuel and electricity. Judges are neither well trained nor necessarily honest. The police are still mainly holdovers from the past, and reports of continued human rights violations are probably correct. Nevertheless, Georgia in 1997 seems to possess two of the most basic prerequisites for progress, both which were absent only two years ago: political stability and growing confidence.
Ekedahl and Goodman devote only a few pages to Shevardnadze’s experiences since his return to Georgia, and most of their account seems to have been written before the spectacular progress of the past eighteen months. Nevertheless, what they have to say about this period is undermined by an apparent determination to use Shevardnadze’s experiences as a pretext for lambasting US policy, a tendency also noticeable in their account of Shevardnadze’s tenure as Soviet foreign minister. Their attitude can be illustrated by the sentence that ends the last regular chapter. (A short epilogue follows it.) It reads: “Neither loved in Russia or Georgia nor honored in the United States, Shevardnadze’s benevolent smile hid his inevitable bitterness that he had been left alone to rule over a forgotten nation.”
It is difficult to find any part of this sentence, and of many other snide comments by the authors, that is both true and to the point (and it would be equally difficult if the authors had made Shevardnadze rather than his smile the grammatical subject of the sentence). Seventy-three percent of the Georgians who took part in the last election voted for Shevardnadze. Shultz and Baker have strongly praised him in their memoirs, and the Clinton administration gave him a friendly reception and a large increase in US aid when he visited Washington in 1993. Shevardnadze told me in May that without US assistance in the winter of 1992-1993, Georgia might not have survived, and that Secretary Baker sent the food without his asking.
Most absurd of all is the idea that Georgia is “forgotten.” It has close and active relations with all its neighbors. The Russian press reports extensively, if sometimes inaccurately, on events in Georgia. Nor is Georgia forgotten by Turkey or Azerbaijan, both of them eager to have a pipeline built through Georgia. Nor by Ukraine, which seeks Georgia’s support in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Nor by Western Europe, most of whose countries have embassies and aid programs in Georgia. Nor by the United States, which received Shevardnadze in July for another successful visit and maintains an embassy in Georgia with over two hundred employees, while a score of American public organizations and a growing number of business people are established in Tbilisi. Statements like the one I have quoted demonstrate the absurdities to which an unexamined animus can lead, especially when infused with a mushy sentimentality.
Having observed Shevardnadze for some twelve years now, sometimes at close quarters, I would define his strongest talent as an ability to bring people together, to understand where the other fellow is coming from. He is adept at maneuvering competing and even hostile parties into negotiations that produce something for both. He also has a keen sense of what is possible in a given situation and sets his priorities accordingly. He had to stabilize Georgian politics and get the guns and bandits off the streets before he could proceed with legal and judicial reform, privatization, and a campaign against corruption.
As a national leader, he has avoided some of the mistakes of both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev’s authority was weakened when he avoided a direct election to the presidency; Shevardnadze insisted from the very beginning on direct popular election, which gave him independent authority, even when he was chairman of parliament, not president. Yeltsin benefited from a direct mandate, but refused to organize a political party that would give him a popular base and mismanaged his relations with his parliament to the point that he brought in tanks to suppress it, with grave damage to Russian democracy.
Shevardnadze, in contrast, never tried to dissolve the Georgian parliament, even when it refused to do what he wanted. Instead, he organized a political party strong enough to win a free and highly competitive election. In doing so, he passed over his cronies and brought into the leadership young people not tainted with a Soviet background or Soviet-style thinking. The party he sponsored, the Union of Citizens of Georgia, is led by thirty-seven-year-old Zurab Zhvania, who came out of the Greens movement. The constitution Shevardnadze supported, unlike Yeltsin’s Russian constitution, balances power between the presidency and the legislature.
Shevardnadze is a conciliator and nation builder who understands that, to be durable, reforms cannot be ordered from above but must be built by the nation as a whole. Time will tell whether Georgia can complete the tasks which have been deferred but must be taken on if it is to have a healthy civil society; but Shevardnadze’s record already reveals more significant achievements than any other leader of an ex-Soviet state can claim.
—August 28, 1997
September 25, 1997
My translation from Eduard Shevardnadze, Moi vybor: V zashchitu demokratii i svobody (Moscow: Novosti, 1991), p. 9. The English edition, The Future Belongs to Freedom, translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick (Free Press, 1991), p. ix, renders the passage somewhat differently. ↩
George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (Scribner, 1993), and James A. Baker, III, with Thomas M. Defrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1993 (Putnam, 1995). ↩
Gorbachev allowed the military prosecutor’s office to deliver a report to the Congress of People’s Deputies which attempted to exonerate the military forces that had suppressed the demonstrators, then refused to allow Shevardnadze to address the Congress. Shevardnadze considered that his honor was at stake with his Georgian compatriots and threatened to resign as USSR foreign minister, but Gorbachev persuaded him to stay in office. ↩
Richard Sakwa, Gorbachev and His Reforms, 1985-1990 (Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 51. ↩
Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights (Wesleyan University Press, 1985). ↩
Personal communication, confirmed by an interview in Tbilisi on May 9, 1997. ↩
Korotich has described this meeting, as well as earlier ones in Georgia, in his unpublished memoir, Zerkalo [Mirror], the manuscript of which he kindly shared with me. ↩
Shevardnadze, The Future Belongs to Freedom, p. 4. ↩
Ekedahl and Goodman report that he sought the job by sending Sergei Tarasenko, his personal assistant, to “lobby for his return.” Members of Shevardnadze’s staff, however, deny this, explaining that Tarasenko and Teymuraz Stepanov were sent to Tbilisi after the invitation was received in order to report on the situation and negotiate the terms on which Shevardnadze might agree to return. ↩