Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Georgian leader and one-time Soviet foreign minister, died July 7 at the age of 86. He leaves behind a complicated political legacy.
Ousted as president of Georgia in 2003, Shevardnadze spent his last years as an outcast in Georgia, confined largely to his Tbilisi residence, while occasionally commenting publicly on current events.
In the West, Shevardnadze is best remembered for playing an influential role in bringing the Cold War to an end. In Russia, he is reviled by nationalists who believe that he, along with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, bear most of the responsibility for the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In his native Georgia, he is mainly associated with the wars and chaos that marked his 1992-2003 tenure in power.
Shevardnadze, who ran Soviet Georgia’s Communist Party from 1972 until 1985, may simply be too familiar a face for dispassionate assessment. Some in Georgia now say that evaluating his legacy is perhaps best left to historians.
Upon hearing of Shevardnadze’s death, Georgia’s current president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, as well as former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, respectfully remembered their predecessor.
After visiting Shevardnadze’s residence, Margvelashvili opted to focus on his Soviet rather than Georgian past, calling the white-haired envoy “one of the most prominent politicians of the 21st century.” In a Facebook statement, Saakashvili applauded Shevardnadze for showing restraint during protests in 2003 that ultimately led to his downfall. (Those protests happened to be led by Saakashvili).
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has ordered the creation of a state commission to handle arrangements for Shevardnadze’s funeral, the cost of which will be covered by the government.
In Tbilisi, some Georgians reacted with anger to news of Shevardnadze’s death. A crowd gathered outside the late president’s home to denounce him for allegedly usurping power from Georgia’s first elected post-Soviet president, the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in 1992. Some protesters got into a heated exchange with Shevardnadze’s daughter, Manana, and clashed with security guards.
When Shevardnadze took the reins of power in Tbilisi in 1992, many Georgians looked up to him as a savior who could prevent internal conflicts and lift the country out of poverty. Ultimately, such hopes went unfulfilled, and Shevardnadze’s political movement, the Citizens’ Union, became known for rampant graft.
In a 2011 interview with EurasiaNet.org, one of his last filmed appearances, Shevardnadze pointed to the perestroika policies of the late Soviet era, claiming that he had known “that the Soviet Union would fall apart, just like any empire did.”
He believed that his December 1990 resignation as foreign minister, amid a speech in which he warned of a looming dictatorship, ranked as one of the key events that precipitated the Soviet Union’s demise.
The 83-year-old Gorbachev has already announced that he is too frail to travel and will not be able to attend Shevardnadze’s funeral. “This was my friend and comrade,” Gorbachev told ITAR-TASS. “We sometimes had heated arguments, but we remained friends to the end.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, and writes EurasiaNet.org's Tamada Tales blog.