Europe

Eduard Shevardnadze: Controversial legacy to Georgia

Eduard Shevardnadze talks to journalists at his home outside Tbilisi - 28 November 2003 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Eduard Shevardnadze became known as a modern and liberal politician while he was Soviet foreign minister

Even in death, Georgia's former President Eduard Shevardnadze continues to divide his country.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said Mr Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, had "greatly contributed to the end of Cold War and the establishment of a new world order" while President Giorgi Margvelashvili praised his role in establishing a new Georgia and setting it on a Western path.

Other Georgian officials made their way to the Krtsanisi residency in Tbilisi, where Mr Shevardnadze had lived since he stepped down in 2003, against the backdrop of protests.

But, hours after his death, a group of supporters of the man he replaced as president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, staged a rally outside the late leader's home, demanding that Mr Shevardnadze and his family "be brought to justice".

'Outstanding'

Promoted to the post of Soviet Foreign Minister in 1985, Mr Shevardnadze soon gained the image of a modern and liberal politician, a contrast from the elite in Moscow at that time. He was known as the Silver Fox for his white hair and his reputation for cunning.

To Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Mr Shevardnadze was "an outstanding politician".

"He played a very important role in the last days of the Soviet Union during perestroika (restructuring), in improving relations with the West, in re-uniting Germany and in finishing the war in Afghanistan," he says.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Shevardnadze was a friend of Boris Yeltsin and played an important role in the end of the Soviet Union
Image copyright AFP
Image caption His relations with the Western leaders, such as President Ronald Reagan, made him popular abroad

Historian Vazha Kiknadze described Mr Shevardnadze as a smart, flexible politician who had felt immediately where "the wind was blowing".

"I think he realised that the old Soviet system was falling apart and there was a need to change policy and himself. But it was not easy, especially for those who came from the Soviet past," he added.

But his popularity was always considered greater abroad than in his homeland, where he returned in 1992 during one of the most difficult times in Georgian history.

"Georgia was not a sweet home at that time. Georgia was in a disastrous situation, it was practically a failed state," says Mr Rondeli. "Mr Shevardnadze came to help his country and he did his best and did what he knew."

Some in Georgia speak of his return as the "second coming". Before he was appointed foreign minister of the USSR in 1985 he had for 13 years held the post of first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption His first big role was as head of the Georgian Communist Party
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption His reputation grew in the Soviet Union and he eventually became foreign minister

Corruption

A well-known and respected figure in the West, he was seen at the time by many as the only person capable of leading Georgia out of the chaos that followed the overthrow of President Gamsakhurdia.

Although he was twice elected president, his popularity declined.

Unresolved conflicts in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, economic hardship and high corruption fuelled public resentment towards him.

"Eduard Shevardnadze was born a politician. He was a talented man, with a very good sense of humour. But he was the son of his epoch, the Soviet epoch," argues Mr Rondeli.

This held him back from escaping the Soviet style of rule, he adds. And he was unable to tackle rampant corruption and introduce much-needed reform.

He also tried to steer a twin course of pro-Western policy while at the same time trying not to irritate Moscow.

"The Russian establishment hated him because they believed he contributed to the division of the Soviet Union and he was a bit unhappy with the West. I think he was hoping that Georgia would receive greater help from the West because of his contribution to world peace," says Mr Rondeli.

'A very tragic person'

As his popularity declined, so the number of enemies he had increased, both inside Georgia and abroad. Some supporters of his predecessor, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, also accused him of masterminding a coup.

He survived several assassination attempts between 1995 and 2000.

Image caption Mr Shevardnadze survived several assassination attempts after he made enemies at home and abroad
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption He appeared on TV covered in cuts and bruises after an August 1995 attack near the Georgian parliament

But his eventual downfall, when it came in 2003, was not violent. Thousands took to the streets in what became known as the Rose Revolution.

Although he kept a low profile after leaving power at his residency, questions over his legacy remain.

For former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev he was Georgia's "ideal representative", a talented man able to work with "all strata of society".

However, the man who toppled him from power, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, said it would be for historians to assess his achievements.

"I would say he was very tragic person," says Alexander Rondeli. "But now we have to remember him as the man who helped Georgia as much as he could."

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