Soviet minister who was key Gorbachev ally

Eduard Shevardnadze: January 25th, 1928 - July 7th, 2014


Eduard Shevardnadze, who has died aged 86, was Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister from 1985 onwards and played a key part in guiding Russia towards democracy.

After the end of the Soviet Union, he became the leader of his native Georgia. In autumn 1993, he stood in the middle of a brutal battle in Sukhumi in an effort to defend Georgia’s sovereignty against Abkhazian separatists. However, his good name was later tarnished amid allegations of corruption involving him and his family.

As Soviet foreign minister he had established a close working partnership with the US and its western allies, and gave meaning and substance to perestroika, the principle of restructuring. He probably understood far earlier than Gorbachev that perestroika, once unleashed, could not be used merely to dabble with reform but was an engine of fundamental change at home and abroad. In 1990, when he realised that Gorbachev was too conservative to make the intellectual leap away from communism, he jumped ship, gave up the foreign ministry and eventually left the party.

Had he been Russian rather than Georgiam, he would certainly have remained in Moscow after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and would have become a significant force in Russian politics. As it was, he had to leave the field to Boris Yeltsin, and in 1992, returned, disillusioned, to the Georgian capital, Tblisi, having decided it was his unpalatable duty to try to end the economic and political chaos in his country. Rural community Shevardnadze, the son of Ambrosi, a teacher, and Sophio (née Pateishvili), grew up in the rural community of Mamati near the Black Sea and began his political life at the age of 20 as a Communist Party apparatchik. He eventually rose to become first secretary and party boss in his state. There were glimmers of enlightenment even during those years: he railed against corruption and introduced mildly reformist economic policies, which significantly raised prosperity – bringing him to Gorbachev’s attention in Moscow.

But Gorbachev’s decision to name Shevardnadze foreign minister came as a surprise. He was virtually unknown in the west and the appointment was thought to signify that Gorbachev meant to retain personal charge of policy. It may have started that way but before long it turned into a partnership of equals – though towards the end, Shevardnadze had probably become the more visionary.

After decades of confrontation with the unbending, sharp-tongued Andrei Gromyko, the new Soviet foreign minister would, anyhow, have brought relief to other players on the international stage. A man of small build, with a whiff of white hair and an easy smile, he may have lacked the Gorbachovian charisma, but he more than made up for it with charm, warmth, humour and intellect.

“Civilised person-to-person relations are above ideology or class or particular interests,” he told the Guardian in 1990, during negotiations on German reunification. “This is what guides me when I talk to James Baker [the then US secretary of state], or to Douglas Hurd, or Hans-Dietrich Genscher. They are partners, people with whom I have been able to establish a good relationship.”

Before Gorbachev, Shevardnadze had understood that the logic of their foreign policy, with its aim of ending east-west confrontation and reversing the arms race, must inevitably lead to the breakup of the Soviet bloc and to German reunification. Against domestic opposition, he insisted on negotiating the “two plus four” German reunification treaty, between the two German governments and the four former allies: the US,UK, France and the Soviet Union. In the process, he made enemies among the military. Consternation Shevardnadze caused consternation abroad when he resigned as foreign minister in December 1990, not least because he explained his decision as an attempt to shock Gorbachev into the realisation that “dictatorship is advancing”. A few months later, he became the first major Soviet figure to resign from the Communist Party though in November 1991 reluctantly accepted Gorbachev’s invitation to return to the foreign ministry. But his heart was not in it. He could see the inevitability of a coup, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the end of his political influence in Moscow.

In 1992 he was made speaker of the Georgian parliament and became effectively the country’s leader. In 1995, after surviving a car bomb explosion, he was then elected president.

On November 23rd, 2003, after street protests over election results, he was forced to resign, amid claims of electoral corruption. Ultimately, Shevardnadze could not hide his disappointment and sense of failure both in Georgia, and also in the collapse of the dreams for a brave new world throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union.

He was predeceased by his wife, Nanuli Tsagareishvili. They had a son and a daughter.