Today, former Soviet foreign minister and Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze died at 86.
His career, which covered a quarter-century of turbulence in the post-Soviet space, reveals the seeds of the post-Soviet states’ decades of political paralysis and rot. And it offers insight into the past several months of chaos in Ukraine.
As Mikhail Gorbachev foreign minister, Shevardnadze was part of the reformist vanguard that implemented Gorbachev’s Perestroika policies against stiff conservative opposition.
When Gorbachev took an abrupt conservative-nationalist turn in 1990, Shevardnadze grew dismayed with the General Secretary’s apparent prioritization of the regime’s survival ahead of its now-abandoned reform agenda, and resigned his post. Less than two years later, the Soviet Union no longer existed, and Shevardnadze was head of state in his native Georgia, which gained its independence as a result of the Union’s disintegration.
During Perestroika, Shevardnadze believed in the potential of reform from within, and was only a radical within the context of the Gorbachev-era Communist party. Along with Alexander Yakovlev, he was one of the major internal forces for change, an outsider-turned-insider who was instrumental in steamrolling the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party and ensuring the continuity of the reform process. But he was no Andrei Sakharov or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He wasn’t a dissident or an overpowering moral force. Given his party bona fides, it’s hardly surprising that he turned into a sclerotic machine politician during his post-Soviet career.
He was in charge of Georgia for over ten years, and was removed in the first of the post-Soviet “colour revolutions” in 2003. He attempted to triangulate between Moscow and the West, but inevitably failed. In late 2003, Russia mobilized supporters of one of Shevardnadze’s pro-Moscow coalition partners during a heated parliamentary election. Shevardnadze’s bloc declared victory despite rampant irregularities in the voting process, triggering protests that eventually led to his ouster.
New president Mikhail Sakashvili’s autocratic governing style and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia extinguished much of the optimism surrounding Georgia’s “Rose Revolution.” Russian machinations and a lack of real internal reform reversed Georgia’s brief opening.
The same thing arguably happened in Ukraine this year. A people power-style uprising removed Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president in February of 2014. Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gotten exactly what he wanted out of his terminally dysfunctional neighbour, annexing Crimea and spreading Russian influence into eastern Ukraine.
Shevardnadze’s career is a reminder of the difficulties that the Soviet Union’s reformers faced in the mid-80s and early-90s, when the forces of retrenchment and conservatism were strong and the empire’s collapse was hardly a given. Without the efforts of people like Shevardnadze, one of the cruelest regimes in history might have limped through the 1990s, an injured beast whose eventual death likely would have been far less peaceful than it ended up being.
But Shevardnadze couldn’t navigate the world left in the Soviet Union’s wake. Ironically, a career reformist lost power in the first of the post-Soviet “people power” revolutions. And even with this popular revolt against the established order, Georgia wasn’t spared the external meddling or internal instability that’s plagued any number of former Soviet bloc countries. He’s part of a generation of post-Soviet leaders who didn’t quite live up to their promise: Boris Yeltsin, for instance, was a courageous pro-democracy leader in the early 90s, but disastrous as president of Russia in the years immediately following the end of the Soviet Union.
And partly thanks to the shortcomings of figures like Shevardnadze, there’s only one leader who actually has managed to thrive in this uncertain post-communist environment: Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and noted Soviet nostalgist.
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