The Cold War receded a little further into history yesterday with the passing of another of its heroes. Eduard Shevardnadze, foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev and later president of Georgia, died “after a long illness” at the age of 86.
Shevardnadze was a reforming head of the Communist Party in Georgia in the 1970s. Although he had no experience of foreign affairs, he and Gorbachev were old friends, and Gorbachev needed a loyal reformist to handle his foreign policy after he took charge of the Soviet Union in 1985. Shevardnadze became the face of the new Soviet Union, gradually helping to convince the world that fundamental change was under way.
Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, disarmament treaties were signed, Germany was reunified and the other satellites of eastern Europe were allowed to go their own way. The Soviet Union started to behave like a respectable member of the international community.
But Shevardnadze had moved further down the reformist track than his boss. As he later told the New York Times, Gorbachev “thought he was refining socialism while I was no longer a socialist.” Eventually he became impatient with the pace of change and in December 1990 he resigned suddenly, warning of the danger of dictatorship.
The attempted coup of August 1991 is sometimes taken as evidence that Shevardnadze was right – although it could equally be taken the other way, as showing that Gorbachev had been moving as fast as anyone could. Shevardnadze helped in the resistance to the coup and later briefly returned to his old job before the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
That could easily have been the cue for an honorable retirement, but instead Shevardnadze returned to the newly independent Georgia and soon took over as its president. He remained in the position until 2003, successfully ending a civil war but otherwise making little impression on Georgia’s problems.
There must be something in the water in Georgia, because it repeatedly goes through the cycle of electing a reformist leader to clean out the old corrupt establishment, only for the new man to be seen to become corrupt and authoritarian and have to be thrown out in turn. That’s what’s happened to Zviad Gamsakhurdia, then Shevardnadze, then Mikheil Saakashvili; it looks as if the current incumbents may be heading the same way, with the arrest last week of a key opposition leader.
Meanwhile, the events of the last few months in Ukraine are a reminder that not all of the high hopes of 1991 have been realised. But those who remember the Cold War cannot help but see even Vladimir Putin as only a pale imitation of the sort of threat that the world once faced.
For bringing us out of that era, Eduard Shevardnadze is one of those who deserve credit.
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