War could have been prevented, says Sheverdnadze


GEORGIA:Eduard Shevardnadze, former Georgian president and Soviet foreign minister who served under Mikhail Gorbachev, talks to Lara Marlowein Tbilisi.

SOUVENIR PHOTOGRAPHS of Eduard Shevardnadze with Ronald Reagan, George Bush snr, John Paul II and a host of world leaders are a reminder that this ageing statesman, living in a crumbling villa on the outskirts of Tbilisi, marked the end of the 20th century.

As foreign minister to the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, Shevardnadze helped to end the cold war, liberate central Europe, reunite Germany and modernise the USSR. He is understandably proud of that record.

After Georgia gained independence, Shevardnadze served for eight years as his country's president, during which "the white fox" survived two assassination attempts.

"My heart is especially heavy today," Shevardnadze told The Irish Times, "because my country is at war. We should not have made this war. And it must end as quickly as possible".

Shevardnadze was unseated in the 2003 "rose revolution" that brought President Mikhail Saakashvili to power. "I was making a speech when Saakashvili and his supporters burst into the parliament," he recalls. "I consider these events to be an attempted coup d'état. You know what a state of emergency means: as president of Georgia, I could have imprisoned the opposition, but I wanted to avoid bloodshed, so that evening I resigned."

Now the 80-year-old Shevardnadze casts a wizened eye on Saakashvili. At first he tries to be complimentary: "Saakashvili is a very intelligent young man. He speaks several foreign languages. He has a good education. During these years as president, he acquired a great deal of experience. Today he is capable of leading Georgia. At least, I want to believe that."

But Shevardnadze faults Saakashvili for his handling of the war with Russia. "This is a war of outlaws, and it shouldn't have happened," he says. "Georgian forces took Tskhinvali. Half of its citizens are Georgian, the other half Russian. Georgia had the right to go there . . . but it would have been better to avoid the escalation by not going."

Like Georgia's feeble political opposition, Shevardnadze also faults Saakashvili for repressing political demonstrations last year.

"There were marches by jobless people who were hungry," he says. "Instead of coming to talk to his people, Saakashvili used force to break up the demonstrations. People were injured. That was his most serious error."

Some Georgians reproach the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for negotiating a peace accord with a loophole so big the Russians drove a tank column through it; the now infamous clause 5, which allows Russia to conduct "special operations" in Georgia after the cessation of hostilities. But Shevardnadze says the accord is acceptable, and repeatedly expressed gratitude to Sarkozy.

Like his successor Saakashvili, Shevardnadze is staunchly pro-American. "I've had close relations with the Americans for a long time," he says. His conversion to the American way of life is all the more remarkable because he was, for 13 years in the 1970s and early 1980s, Communist party boss in Georgia.

For Shevardnadze, the installation of a US missile defence system in eastern Europe is more portentous of a new cold war than the Russian-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia. "The missiles are outside the Russian-Georgian context, and create a much broader problem," he said. "If these missiles are deployed, we must expect Russia to respond appropriately, and this will harm relations between Russia and the West.

"America helped Georgia financially, materially and morally. They helped build our army. We are America's allies," Shevardnadze continues. "Despite the fact I consider America as our friends and allies, I think the installation of the missile defence system in eastern Europe is a serious error on their part."

But Shevardnadze supports the enlargement of Nato to former Soviet republics: "There was a referendum in Georgia and 70 per cent of Georgians said Yes to joining NATO. It's true the Russians don't like it . . . But I don't consider Nato an aggressive organisation.

The Atlantic alliance had its reasons for dampening Georgian and Ukrainian hopes for rapid membership at the Bucharest summit in April. "Our democratic development didn't correspond to their standards," Shevardnadze said.

"But if we had been members of Nato, what is happening today would not have happened. All the countries who refused support our membership today."

As if to confirm Shevardnadze's words, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrived in Tbilisi yesterday afternoon, said Georgia should join Nato.

Georgian politicians began making alarmist statements about Russian occupation at the weekend. But despite his heavy heart, Shevardnadze is keeping developments in perspective. Will his country be "Finlandised" - the cold war term for states that dared not defy the Soviet Union? "I think not," Shevardnadze says. "Because all Europe is with Georgia, and America too. If Europe and America stand together for Georgia, I dont think our independence is threatened."

Because of this war, Georgian government predictions for economic growth this year have fallen from 10 per cent to zero. Direct foreign investment will, they say, be nothing, instead of $2 billion. "Not only should Europe and America give us humanitarian and financial aid," Shevardnadze says. "They should re-arm us."

Washington has promised to re-equip Georgia. At the same time, Moscow insists that Georgia must not be allowed to threaten Russia again. To this end Russian troops go about the country blowing up bases, weapons and even coastguard vessels.

Shevardnadze's former partner in perestroika, Gorbachev, went on television to condemn Georgia for starting this war. The men argued in the final days of the USSR, when Gorbachev sought to hold the Union together, while Shevardnadze advocated independence for the republics.

Their falling out seems to symbolise the rift between Russia and Georgia.

"Gorbachev was my friend," he recalls. "We had warm, close relations. We played an important role together to end the cold war and reunify Europe.

"Since then, we went our separate ways. Relations between us grew cold. I cannot say we are friends any longer. What he said is a lie . . . Medvedev is more balanced than Gorbachev. Gorbachev is worse than Medvedev and Putin combined."