Throughout his years in power, Eduard Shevardnadze was known as the “silver fox,” a man who seemed to glide effortlessly from leader of Soviet Georgia and Kremlin Politburo member to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform-minded foreign minister, before reemerging as post-Soviet Georgia’s pro-Western president, ironically opposing Gorbachev. He regarded himself as a hero who liberated Georgia from Russia’s tight embrace. He was also one of the most corrupt politicians his country ever saw.
By the end of his life, Shevardnadze had become a political pariah in Georgia, the West, and Russia, where he was viewed as an architect of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Yet, even if he was largely forgotten after the Rose Revolution of 2003, when he was ousted by his one-time protege, Mikheil Saakashvili, his cunning and skill at manipulating political forces still enabled him to manage his legacy to his advantage.
The staunchly pro-American Saakashvili launched successful economic reforms and an all-out assault on police corruption, though he, too, eventually was accused of taking bribes and indulging autocratic impulses. Having come to power in the revolt that overthrew the corrupt Shevardnadze, he resorted to the same Soviet-style techniques — intimidating and discrediting opponents, dispersing dissenters by force — to keep his opponents at bay.
The question Georgians have been asking ever since is whether Shevardnadze was really overthrown at all. Knowing the extent of his unpopularity in 2003, many believe that he was ready to leave power but needed a successor who would ensure that his legacy (and his wealth) survived. To be sure, Saakashvili became famous as Georgia’s justice minister for submitting corruption charges against the Shevardnadze family, and early in his presidency was able to reclaim for the state $15 million dollars of the Shevardnadze fortune. But Saakashvili’s government never touched Shevardnadze and his family.
Regardless of whether this theory is true, its persistence lies at the core of Shevardnadze’s legacy. Throughout his career, he was known to play all sides, at times threatening his resignation, only to stay on — or accusing enemies of assassination plots, only to stay alive. In the 1970s, he would flatter Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev with spectacular displays of fealty to the Kremlin, only to meet with protesting Georgian students in support of their right, in opposition to the Kremlin’s wishes, to speak Georgian, not Russian, as a state language.
Everything at which Georgians excelled under Shevardnadze in the Soviet era — entrepreneurship, education, and culture — was greatly neglected by him in the 1990s. Similarly, whereas tens of thousands of functionaries were indicted for corruption or lost their jobs under his leadership in the 1970s, the post-Soviet Shevardnadze of the 1990s reportedly joked that he should have arrested himself, but that he deserved his wealth for his priceless political contribution.
In 1999, during the New York celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I myself heard Shevardnadze assert that Georgia had given the 20th century two historic figures: “One who erected the Iron Curtain [Joseph Stalin], and one who tore it down” — meaning himself.
Surely, Shevardnadze’s political skills were worthy of another great Soviet politician from the Caucasus, the Armenian Anastas Mikoyan, once Stalin’s trusted trade minister and later Nikita Khrushchev’s fellow anti-Stalinist and deputy prime minister. Mikoyan, as one joke had it, left the Kremlin one day in heavy rain and refused to share a colleague’s umbrella. “It’s OK,” he said, “I will walk between the raindrops.”
Likewise, Shevardnadze resigned as general secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia in the 1980s, ostensibly in protest against Soviet rule, only to be appointed Soviet foreign minister by Gorbachev. Having gained the trust of Western leaders and overseen the dismantling of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, he then resigned in 1990, declaring that Russia — under Gorbachev — was returning to dictatorship.
That pose as democracy’s guardian earned Shevardnadze independent Georgia’s presidency at a time when the country was vulnerable to civil war. He held the post for 11 years.
Was Shevardnadze ever honest? Was he a democrat or a despot? The reality of the times was that he was both. His death brings closer the end of the Gorbachev generation of reform communists, those who — like Shevardnadze and the late Boris Yeltsin — presented a stark contrast in the late 1980s to the dour Brezhnev-era hard-liners, spurring (mostly inadvertently) the collapse of the Soviet empire and the long transition to democracy.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s corrupt and authoritarian rule demonstrates every day, that transition is far from finished. Yet there is some good news. Last year, Georgia elected its new president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, through a peaceful and legitimate process; earlier this summer, the country signed a European Union Association Agreement, implying closer connections to the West. None of this would have been possible without Shevardnadze’s decades-long career of cunning, yet brave, political triangulation.
Nina L. Khrushcheva, author of “Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics,” teaches international affairs at The New School and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York. © 2014 Project Syndicate