The controversial legacy of former Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze

The close associate of Mikhail Gorbachev died today. He helped negotiate an end to the cold war and was later forced to step down as president of Georgia.

Boris Yurchenko/AP
In this Friday, Dec. 7, 1991 file photo, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, right, talk to each other on their way to a wreath laying ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Moscow during World War II in Moscow.

Eduard Shevardnadze, who passed away today, was widely acclaimed as the Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev who helped negotiate an end to the Cold War, and, at a critical moment, took a strong stand for democracy in the USSR.

Later, as president of independent Georgia, Mr. Shevardnadze was vilified as a "dictator" by his opponents, accused of electoral fraud. He was overthrown in a Western-supported pro-democracy street revolt known as the "Rose Revolution."

That complicated legacy is, perhaps, not so surprising for a man who joined the Communist movement in the waning days of the Stalin era. He rose through the ranks to become police and KGB chief in his native Georgia, and later Communist Party leader of the republic, before being summoned to Moscow to take charge of foreign policy.

Like his long-time friend, Mr. Gorbachev, Shevardnadze had harbored doubts about the Soviet system for years. Appointed foreign minister at the outset of Gorbachev's pro-democracy perestroika program in 1985, Shevardnadze helped to turn Soviet foreign policy upside-down. Among other things, he inked medium-range and strategic arms control accords with the US, negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Europe and the abolition of the USSR's Warsaw Pact military alliance, oversaw the end of the decade-long Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, and conducted the diplomacy leading to the reunification of Germany. 

According to the last US ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock, Shevardnadze broke with seven decades of Soviet history and stunned his American colleagues by accepting human rights considerations as a normal part of diplomatic discourse.

When Gorbachev tacked to the right, bringing Communist hardliners into government in 1990, Shevardnadze resigned in protest, warning that a "dictatorship is coming." About a year later Gorbachev was briefly overthrown in a hardline coup, and the USSR subsequently collapsed at the end of 1991.

Shevardnadze's record as foreign minister is still hotly disputed in Russia, where many conservatives accuse him of abetting the demise of the Soviet Union by giving too much away to the West in return for nothing.

"As a foreign minister he was a weak negotiator," says Roy Medvedev, a former dissident and one of Russia's foremost historians. "He made too many concessions to the Americans. He didn't fight enough for his point of view. His reputation in Russia today is viewed quite negatively as a result."

Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, a founder of Russia's oldest human rights monitor, the Moscow Helsinki Group, says she knew Shevardnadze well and appreciated his efforts to promote democracy in the USSR.

"He was a contradictory figure, and I feel great sympathy for him," she says. "On one hand he was a Soviet grandee, but on the other hand he accepted the new perestroika realities. Many of his kind did not."

After the end of the USSR, Shevardnadze returned to his native Georgia, then wracked by civil war and revolts by South Ossetian and Abkhazian ethnic minorities. He took power in a coup against extreme nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992, and was later elected to two terms as president of Georgia. 

But that ended in 2003, when crowds led by US-supported opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili staged weeks of rolling street protests over alleged electoral fraud. Shevardnadze resigned, clearing the way for fresh presidential elections that Mr. Saakashvili won in a landslide

Shevardnadze remained in Georgia, retired to private life, and was little heard from in recent years. His granddaughter, Sophie Shevardnadze, is a leading presenter for the English-language, Kremlin-funded RT television network, where she hosts a regular interview program that often features controversial guests such as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and French ultra-nationalist leader Marine Le Pen.

Georgian experts say the public attitude toward Shevardnadze has softened in recent years, and that he will be best remembered for saving Georgia from chaos in the early 1990s.

"He was an artful politician, but he was a child of his era," says Alexander Rondeli, head of the independent Georgian Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Tbilisi. "It was not easy to construct a new Georgian state, but he did his best. He made a lot of mistakes toward the end of his political career, but he will always be thought of as one of the key founders of modern Georgia."

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