Shevardnadze, Eduard (b. 1928)

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Soviet foreign minister and president of Georgia.

Eduard Amvrosevich Shevardnadze was born in the village of Mamati in western Soviet Georgia. The young Eduard grew up with the knowledge that some of his family had suffered from the Stalinist regime. Yet after graduating from the state pedagogical institute in Kutaisi, he rose rapidly in the Komsomol (Communist Youth Union) and the Communist Party. In 1968 he was named minister of internal affairs in Georgia, and when the Soviet party chief Leonid Brezhnev launched a campaign to rid Georgia of corruption and favoritism, he elevated Shevardnadze to party leader of Georgia (1972). Four years later he became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

In Georgia he was a vigorous campaigner against crime and corruption, though ultimately powerless before the country's "black" and "gray" markets and the system of kinship politics that made evasion from the law prevalent. Even though he fought against manifestations of Georgian nationalism, he developed a rapport with the public. In 1978, when Georgians publicly demanded restoration of Georgian as the official language of the republic, he defied Moscow's initial objections and made that concession. His reforms attracted the attention of a rising young Russian communist, Mikhail Gorbachev, who in a famous private conversation confided to Shevardnadze his conviction that the Soviet Union could not go on much longer without reform. When Gorbachev became general secretary of the CPSU in 1985 he surprised the world by bringing Shevardnadze to Moscow as a member of his Politburo and minister of foreign affairs.

The Gorbachev-Shevardnadze foreign policy, known as the "New Thinking," transformed the Soviet Union from a dedicated adversary of the West into a much more cooperative interlocutor. Concern for the interests of a generalized humanity replaced the idea of international class struggle between capitalist and socialist camps. Arms reduction, withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and a refusal to back militarily Soviet-style communist regimes in Eastern Europe all became part of a post–Cold War foreign policy. Identified with this radical shift in policy, Shevardnadze incurred the wrath of communist hardliners, and when Gorbachev appeared to turn way from reform, Shevardnadze resigned his position (December 1990). Only after the anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991 did he return to the foreign ministry as the USSR disintegrated and Gorbachev's power withered.

When independent Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, led his nation into civil and ethnic war, influential Georgians invited Shevardnadze back to reunify the country. His supporters defeated Gamsakhurdia, but Shevardnadze could not bring the whole country under his control. Georgians were driven out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Shevardnadze was forced to accept de facto Russian hegemony in those regions. To placate Russia he agreed to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the primary tie left for former Soviet states.

Having established a degree of security for Georgia, and after surviving an assassination attempt, Shevardnadze was overwhelmingly elected president of Georgia in November 1995. He brought order to its streets, ridding the cities of the free-standing militias, but was unable to revive the economy or restrain the growing corruption. His popularity began to decline in the second half of the 1990s, at least within Georgia, though he maintained a respectable international reputation. But even his highly placed friends in Western capitals began to desert him in the early twenty-first century. Though reelected president in April 2000, it was widely recognized that the election had been marred by irregularities. By this time many saw the Shevardnadze as part of the problem rather than a solution to the country's economic and political woes.

In November 2003 Shevardnadze and his allies overplayed their hand in an attempt to win the elections to the Georgian parliament. Popular outrage fed into a movement led by the charismatic Mikhail Saakashvili, a young politician earlier groomed by Shevardnadze himself. While the president was speaking to parliament, Saakashvili and his followers broke into the hall, and security men whisked a confused Shevardnadze to safety. Rather than use force, Shevardnadze decided to resign. His opponents agreed to allow him to remain in Georgia. This "Rose Revolution" effectively ended the political career of the man who had dominated Georgia for more than thirty years. His legacy in his homeland remains mixed, while his achievements in foreign policy contributed to the end of the Cold War.

See alsoBrezhnev, Leonid; Cold War; Gorbachev, Mikhail.


Primary Sources

Shevardnadze, Eduard. The Future Belongs to Freedom. Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New York, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Ekedahl, Carolyn M., and Melvin A. Goodman. Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze. State College, Pa., 1997.

Palazchenko, Pavel, and Don Oberdorfer. My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: The Memoir of a Soviet Interpreter. State College, Pa., 1997.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Making of the Georgian Nation. 2nd ed. Bloomington, Ind., 1994.

Suny, Ronald Grigor, ed. Transcaucasia, Nationalism, and Social Change. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996.

Ronald Grigor Suny