The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze

The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze



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The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze by Carolyn Ekedahl, Melvin A. Goodman

When Eduard Shevardnadze resigned as foreign minister of the Soviet Union in 1990, he ended one of the most remarkable and controversial political partnerships in modern history. Together with Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Yakovlev, Shevardnadze led the dramatic Soviet about-face in the 1980s that ended the Cold War and transformed the international political climate. While Gorbachev and Yakovlev focused on domestic reform, Shevardnadze redirected foreign policy. His willingness to act decisively made him the "moral force" of new thinking and the point man for the policies of perestroika. This major book is the first to take a critical look at the many battles Shevardnadze has fought at home and abroad throughout his remarkable career.

Carolyn Ekedahl and Melvin Goodman—veteran observers of the Soviet system—describe and analyze Shevardnadze’s career, beginning with his Georgian past. They assess his responsibility for the Soviet collapse and the leadership role he continues to play in the independent state of Georgia. While sympathetic to what he has achieved, the authors show how Shevardnadze was a product of the Soviet system he sought to change but would help to destroy. He has proven a skillful politician who exploited available instruments of power to advance his career and further his policy objectives. For this book, the authors have interviewed many high-ranking American, Georgian, Russian, and Soviet officials, including Shevardnadze himself and former secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker. Both Shultz and Baker credit Shevardnadze with convincing them that Moscow was committed to serious negotiations. They conclude that history would have been far different if it were not for the personal diplomacy of Shevardnadze.

As historians and specialists seek to explain the end of the Cold War in terms of endemic weaknesses in the Soviet system and the steadfast policies of the West, The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze shows the folly of neglecting the essential role played by Soviet leaders who saw the need for reform and implemented policies designed to accomplish profound, but peaceful, change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780271016047
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Publication date: 02/28/1997
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Carolyn M. Ekedahl is Chief of Public Communications on the Public Affairs Staff at the CIA. She is the author of Moscow's Third World Policy under Gorbachev (1990).

Melvin A. Goodman is Professor of International Security Studies at the National War College. His books include The End of Superpower Conflict in the Third World (1992) and Gorbachev's Retreat: The Third World (1991).

Read an Excerpt



The Seeds of Reform The rules of the game made no provision for any exception.... There was just one way out—not taking part. —Eduard Shevardnadze

Eduard Shevardnadze's roots are in Georgia, where he was both autocratic Communist Party leader (condemned for obeisance to Moscow and brutal repression) and innovative reformer (praised for efforts to end corruption, energize the economy, and expand political dialogue). His life and career before 1985 were spent in Georgia, and it is there that one must look for the clues to his becoming the driving force of the second Soviet revolution and the implementer of "new political thinking" in Soviet foreign policy.

Shevardnadze's career in Georgia was filled with contradictions. His climb to the top of the Communist Party displayed ambitious careerism and crass opportunism. As party leader and security minister, he played the role of loyalist, paying homage to the Soviet system and its leaders and ruthlessly suppressing dissent and nationalism. He was responsible for the arrest, torture, and execution of thousands of extortionists and black-marketeers, as well as numerous dissidents and Georgian nationalists. He demonstrated his ability to tack with the political winds and do whatever was necessary to satisfy his personal ambition and achieve his political objectives.

It was also during his career in Georgia that Shevardnadze displayed the unusual courage, initiative, and pragmatism that revealed his potential as a reformer. His ability to embrace radical ideas was unusual in a Soviet leader andsuggests that he was more committed to practical results than to ideology. His doubts about the Soviet system began in the 1950s, when First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev denounced the excesses of the Stalinist era. These doubts intensified over the years until he finally agreed with Mikhail Gorbachev that the whole system was rotten.

As party leader in Georgia, Shevardnadze operated in unique and unorthodox ways, confident in his own judgment and committed to pursuing the course that would best serve his interests and advance his goals. He cultivated powerful patrons in Moscow and manipulated the system skillfully. At the same time, he pursued policies that, in the Soviet context, were liberal and enlightened. He made full use of his position and power in true autocratic fashion, but he also appreciated and used sophisticated political tactics, such as cultivating the support and cooperation of the general public. In short, Shevardnadze was an extraordinarily skilled, resilient, and ambitious politician who demonstrated during his Georgian career that he was capable of both ruthless careerism and political creativity.


Eduard Shevardnadze was born on January 28, 1928, in the tiny village of Mamati in Georgia's Guria Province. His father, Ambrose, who taught Russian language and literature in the village school, was a member of the Communist Party and frequently argued politics with his brother and brother-in-law. As a boy, Shevardnadze found it difficult to take sides during these arguments because he could not think of any of his relatives as "class enemies." His mother apparently had little respect for those who held power and opposed his party career. The ambivalence this created contributed to his later skepticism about ideology and enabled him to adapt his views to changing circumstances, adopt reform policies, and eventually reject communist ideology.

The excesses of the Stalinist era further contributed to Shevardnadze's skepticism about ideology. His father had been arrested and briefly imprisoned in 1937, and the father of his own wife, Nanuli, was executed as an "enemy of the people." Nanuli initially rejected Shevardnadze's marriage proposal, fearing her background would ruin his career. Indeed, Shevardnadze had reason to believe she was right. Yegor Ligachev, who later would become Shevardnadze's strongest opponent in the Politburo, had a similar background. His father-in-law had been executed during the Stalin years, and Ligachev wrote: "Such facts had to remain in your personal dossier. I knew of people who had been severely punished for concealing such details of their biography.... A person marked with such an entry in his personal file was considered second-class. One could be reminded of this invisible stigma ... hanging over the family."

Shevardnadze, the youngest of five children, showed early promise as a student, and his parents urged him to become a physician. After completing preliminary medical training, however, he opted for politics, graduating from the party school in Tbilisi in 1951 and the Kutaisi Pedagogical Institute in 1960 with a degree in history. His mother never forgave him for his decision to become a politician, according to Shevardnadze. Shortly before her death, she reproached him, saying he should have tried to ease physical suffering, such as that of his oldest brother Evgrafii, a journalist crippled by polio, rather than taking on the impossible task of curing the ills of society. Shevardnadze asserts that this reproach spurred him to try to prove that his goals were not impossible and that social ills could be treated.


Rapid Rise

While Shevardnadze's early career paralleled that of other Soviet party leaders, in many ways it was unusual and dramatic. Georgia, a republic of five million people, was unique among Soviet republics. Home of Joseph Stalin, Georgia was radically transformed by the dictator's harsh policies of collectivization and repression. Stalin's "war on the peasantry," the collectivization of Georgia's peasant farms in the 1930s, was the most radical transformation of land tenure and village life in Georgia's history. Village institutions of government were eliminated and replaced by Soviets; decision-making was put in the hands of party members responsible to their comrades in Tbilisi and Moscow, not to their local constituents. Georgia became industrialized and urbanized as a result of this assault on the peasantry.

At the same time, Georgia was the fiefdom of Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria. Having begun his career in the Georgian secret police, Beria served as head of the party in Georgia from 1931 to 1938. He became head of the Soviet State Committee for Internal Affairs (NKVD) in 1938 but maintained control over the Caucasus until his death in 1953. He directed the great purge of 1936-38 from Georgia, where the toll was extraordinarily high. Nonetheless, in subsequent years his involvement allowed Georgia somewhat more autonomy than other republics.

In the 1950s, the Georgians had considerable control over their own political and economic affairs and an environment of ethnic favoritism existed, which fostered the development of illegal economic networks. Many Georgians accumulated great wealth, while ethnic minorities fared less well and the republic itself grew at a very slow rate. Corruption and black-marketeering existed throughout the Soviet Union, but, according to one observer, "Georgia has a reputation second to none.... In form this activity may not differ greatly from what takes place in other regions, but in Georgia it seems to have been carried out on an unparalleled scale and with unrivaled scope and daring." With its freewheeling politics and chronic corruption, Georgia provided a wide-open but dangerous proving ground for a young, ambitious politician.

Shevardnadze's spectacular rise from obscurity to the highest position in Georgia in 1972 is a story of raw ambition, unusual initiative, and brilliant infighting. His career began normally enough: he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1948, when he was twenty, and rose steadily through the ranks of the Georgian Communist Youth League (Komsomol), serving as second secretary and first secretary from 1956 until 1961. In 1961, he was released as Komsomol Chief and removed from the Georgian Communist Party's politbureau because he had offended a senior official. Given his proclivity for activism, such a setback probably was inevitable at some point in his career, and he endured several years of obscurity with a regional party organization before returning to Tbilisi as first secretary of a city district in 1963.

Shevardnadze moved out of the party apparatus and into the Georgian security organization as first deputy minister of internal affairs in 1964, becoming minister the following year. His successful anticorruption campaign, supported by Moscow, led to his appointment as second secretary of the Georgian Communist Party in 1972. Once again, he served only briefly in the number-two position, replacing Vasily Mzhavanadze, a long-time crony of Nikita Khrushchev and an alternate member of the CPSU's Politburo, as first secretary the same year. He was only forty-four years old at the time, and he would hold the position of Georgian party leader until his appointment as foreign minister in July 1985.

Exploiting the Battle Against Corruption

Shevardnadze's rapid rise in Georgia was the result of his dramatic campaign against corruption in the republic—an overwhelming and, many would argue, impossible undertaking. Mzhavanadze, a weak and corrupt leader and the most prominent victim of this crusade, had run Georgia since the late 1950s, tolerating if not encouraging black-marketeering, extortion, nepotism, and bribery. Even the agricultural system encouraged corruption. Inadequate remuneration for state farming and shortages of agricultural products in Russia led Georgians to cultivate private plots and create black-market enterprises. A well-oiled system of payoffs and bribery permitted Georgian peasants to send their produce north into the cities of the Russian republic with virtually no accountability to state authorities.

When Shevardnadze returned to a party position in Tbilisi in 1963, he successfully challenged the local rackets and took on one of the most powerful and corrupt officials, Otari Lolashvili, the first secretary of the Tbilisi party committee. His success in sending Lolashvili to prison led to his appointment to the Ministry of the Interior, where he continued his battle against corruption. Shevardnadze's use of unorthodox tactics became legendary in Georgia. According to one account, he packed a suitcase full of the evidence he had collected during his years as interior minister and took it to Moscow. The evidence proved that the corruption permeating Georgia reached as high as Mzhavanadze and his wife, Victoria, who was notorious for her involvement in numerous illicit activities, including the theft of religious treasures from the Georgian patriarchate in Tbilisi. The operation finished Mzhavanadze and demonstrated to leaders in the Kremlin that Shevardnadze was a young man of considerable skill and promise.

Shevardnadze's campaign against Mzhavanadze demonstrated both his willingness to go after those who stood in his way and his effectiveness in doing so. His actions were politically astute and carefully organized—and not without risk. He consistently took the rhetorical high ground on ethical issues, seeking to tarnish his rivals with often-accurate charges of malfeasance. He gained maximum personal and political gain from such campaigns, especially against Mzhavanadze, whose fall opened the position of first secretary for his taking.

Shevardnadze's personal style was well suited to his crusade against corruption. He lived modestly in an unpretentious home and, unlike most republic leaders, did not display his power and position. He was careful to avoid potential conflicts of interest. When he became party first secretary in 1972, he insisted that his brother, Ippokrat, a party official in Georgia, resign as the party's chief of trade, planning, and finance to avoid charges of nepotism. Eduard Shevardnadze had a seemingly natural tendency toward self-righteousness and had little trouble making difficult decisions and implementing them. He made it clear he would purge offenders and show "no mercy to bribe-takers and extortionists," and that is what he did. Perhaps most important, he was willing to take risks and to pursue his goals ruthlessly.

As interior minister, Shevardnadze arrested more than 25,000 people, including 17,000 members of the Communist Party, numerous government ministers, and 70 KGB officials. He was responsible for the torture and execution of many innocent people, including dissidents. This campaign and the purges he initiated as first secretary earned him the undying enmity of many Georgians. They also won him greater notice in Moscow.


All Soviet careers depended on patronage, and Shevardnadze could not have prevailed without help from Moscow. Alexander Shelepin, Soviet Komsomol Chief and then Chief of the State Committee for Security (KGB) and a member of the Politburo, was Shevardnadze's first important patron, fostering the young man's rise in Georgia's Komsomol. Soviet Minister of the Interior Nikolay Shchelokov embraced Shevardnadze and advocated his appointment as Georgian First Secretary. The Georgian impressed General Secretaries Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and of course Mikhail Gorbachev with his fight against corruption. Shevardnadze cultivated all these men, using their patronage to gain the greatest possible advantage for himself.

Shchelokov, a close friend of Brezhnev, was a particularly important patron. He became head of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in 1966 and established close contacts with the regional ministry of interior leaders, including Shevardnadze. Ties to Shchelokov, and through him to Brezhnev and Chernenko, led Shevardnadze to support the latter during the struggle for leadership that began before Brezhnev's death in November 1982. The first phase of that struggle, however, was won by Andropov, former chairman of the KGB, who succeeded Brezhnev and laid the foundations for perestroika. Shevardnadze immediately switched his support to Andropov.

Playing the Game

Shevardnadze's effusive praise of party leaders, particularly the general secretary, was widely noticed during his rise through the hierarchy. All Soviet officials paid homage to their seniors, but Shevardnadze was particularly obsequious. He was the first to lavish praise on Brezhnev at the 25th Party Congress in 1976—the zenith of Brezhnev's cult of personality—referring to Brezhnev as vozhd (leader), a term previously reserved for Stalin. Shevardnadze was exceeded in his truckling only by Andrey Kirilenko (Brezhnev's heir apparent at the time) and Azerbaijan's Gaydar Aliyev. Ligachev, Shevardnadze's rival, has ridiculed the Georgian's performance:

I don't recall a single case when Shevardnadze contradicted a gensek (general secretary). During the years when Brezhnev was seriously ill and barely functioning, there was a kind of ritual glorification of him by the other leaders.... From the vantage point of hindsight, we justly condemn this, but ... politics is politics and ... anyone who wanted to do his job ... had to pay tribute in this ritual.... But there were true virtuosi who based their careers on this ritual, and, among them, Shevardnadze was the best.

By 1979, Shevardnadze had begun his accolades to Chernenko, presumably because of the latter's close ties to Brezhnev and his position as heir apparent. Even then, Andropov should have been a more attractive candidate for Shevardnadze. The two men shared a strong anticorruption agenda, and Andropov's commitment to revitalizing the Soviet economy complemented Shevardnadze's agenda. But ambition, and Shevardnadze's perception of where his best chances lay, prevailed, and at a party meeting in May 1982 Shevardnadze praised Chernenko's "great theoretical and practical work" in "developing party democracy and strengthening party organizations." In October, Chernenko flew to Tbilisi to present the city with the Order of Lenin and return Shevardnadze's flattery.

Shevardnadze did not switch to Andropov until the latter became general secretary. Fearing that he might suffer from his earlier support for Chernenko, Shevardnadze became the first republic leader to praise the new leader. In a speech in Tbilisi, he referred to the Politburo as "headed by Yury Vladimirovich Andropov"—a controversial description that had been adopted for Brezhnev only after he clearly had risen above his colleagues.

Andropov quickly signaled his appreciation of Shevardnadze's policies in Georgia. His choice for first secretary of the Russian Republic was Gennady Kolbin, who had been Shevardnadze's second secretary in Tbilisi and was an expert in the fight against corruption. Andropov's battle with corruption in the Soviet Union was based, at least in part, on Shevardnadze's struggles in Georgia. According to Andropov's biographers, he was "enchanted by the effectiveness and inventiveness displayed in the Georgian version of a police state." Andropov also personally intervened to save several Georgian experiments in economic reform from being choked by the bureaucracy in Moscow.

When Andropov died in February 1984, Chernenko succeeded him. True to form, Shevardnadze quickly referred to Chernenko as "head of the Politburo" and praised him lavishly. While all party leaders spoke in support of party unity and cohesion following Chernenko's election, Shevardnadze's endorsement, once again, was particularly effusive. It is hardly surprising, given his history, that in the succession struggle that followed Chernenko's death in March 1985, Shevardnadze emerged as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the victor, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Shevardnadze's behavior during the succession crises that occurred from 1982 to 1985 revealed a high degree of ambition, a well-developed sense of how the political game was played, and an ability to change his tune rapidly when he had mistakenly endorsed the losing candidate. This performance provided no indication of moral leadership or courage. On the contrary, it demonstrated political agility, opportunism, and seemingly unrestrained ambition.

Shevardnadze's Rationale

Shevardnadze justified his loyalty to the Soviet system and its leaders on two grounds: first, belief in the system, and later the need to protect his reformist agenda. His support for the system originally was based on his perception that Stalin and the party had led the Soviet Union to victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) in which his older brother, Akaki, had died: "The war with fascism became a personal battle to me. The fascists were attacking Communism, and Communism was my religion. The victory in that war became the victory of Communism, and that meant my own personal victory." Shevardnadze even believed that the terror he witnessed in Georgia during the Stalin years had occurred without Stalin's knowledge and that the leadership in Moscow remained committed to improving the life of the people. In 1991, he stated that he eventually came to believe otherwise: "We all carry the burden of our past. We have experienced Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko. We made speeches, praised them. I even composed a poem praising Stalin when I was young. But we change, life requires us to do so."

Having denounced Stalin and his excesses when it was politically desirable to do so, Shevardnadze was able to change course again when he felt political necessity beckon. On May 7, 1995, on the eve of his departure for Moscow to celebrate the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, he visited Stalin's birthplace in Gori to emphasize his Georgian "roots" and pay homage to a fellow Georgian.

Nevertheless, Shevardnadze has claimed that he became disillusioned with the Soviet system in the 1950s. Like many Soviets, he was shaken by Khrushchev's speech in 1956 describing Stalin's crimes, particularly the campaign of terror. He was horrified when Georgian demonstrators, protesting what they considered the affront to Georgian pride in Khrushchev's speech, were mowed down by machine-gun fire. "I used to write letters to Khrushchev," Shevardnadze said, but "then he sent tanks to Tbilisi and 150 students died." Describing his reaction to these events, Shevardnadze wrote: "It is agonizingly difficult to acknowledge that you have worshipped the wrong god, that you have been deceived. It shattered my life and my faith." According to Shevardnadze, "comrades sent from Moscow" had accused the demonstrators of "bourgeois nationalism." He spoke out against these accusations, he said, arguing that dismissing the protesters as nationalists was morally reprehensible and politically dangerous.

Shevardnadze believed that members of his generation had acquired a "1956 complex" for the rest of their lives—rejecting the use of force as a political instrument. Commitment to the nonuse of force became one of his most important contributions to the end of communism and the Cold War, permitting the virtually nonviolent demise of the Soviet empire and the bloodless dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Shevardnadze opposed the use of force in Tbilisi in 1989 and in the Baltics in 1990. In his resignation speech in December 1990, he predicted that the use of force would undermine perestroika. The violence in Lithuania three weeks later proved him right.

Shevardnadze's second justification for "playing the game" was that it was necessary if he were to have a chance to reform the system. In an emotional speech after being harshly criticized at the Party Congress in July 1990, Shevardnadze described the environment in which he had operated as

a system where a certain selection of words represents a ritual sign of devotion to that system—and if you fail to do homage to it you run the risk of being deprived of any opportunity to do anything.... God forbid you ever say anything contrary to the ritual. You'll be an anathema in an instant. To have an opportunity of doing anything my way, I was quite frequently forced to speak like everyone else. For instance, that meant paying homage to the "number one."... I say this with sadness, recognizing the definite moral damage implicit in such an admission. But I am saying it, ... and let he who has not experienced this split personality cast the first stone.... These "rules of the game" made no provision for any exception. There was just one way out—not taking part.

Shevardnadze would later claim that he took many risks to pursue his policies: "A great deal of what we did in the republic party organization was contrary to top-level directives and rejected all-powerful centralism as a principle. There was a great risk inherent in this willfulness and it was often intimated to me that I might have to pay for it."

Much of Shevardnadze's subsequent justification for his behavior was self-serving, but it also truthfully reflected the way things were done. Certainly he was an opportunist, particularly good at the political game. At the same time, during his thirteen years as Georgia's leader he took innovative steps to improve the economy and reform the system, learning lessons that he eventually applied to the Soviet Union. He truckled to Moscow and he repressed dissidents and nationalists, but he also reformed some of the worst aspects of the system.


Shevardnadze's willingness to challenge his party bosses when it came to policy and reform contradicts his opportunistic image. When he became republic leader, his primary objectives were to galvanize a staggering economy and attack rampant corruption. His record as a republic leader was impressive in many respects, and it presaged characteristics he would demonstrate and policies he would pursue as foreign minister.

Economic Reform

Shevardnadze's Georgia was one of the only republics in the Soviet Union that undertook real economic reform and achieved economic growth. In the first two years of his tenure as party chief, industrial output in Georgia rose 9.6 percent and agricultural output rose more than 18 percent. Food queues disappeared in Tbilisi but lengthened in Moscow. Some of his programs were adopted by the Soviet government and introduced throughout the country.

Unlike most Soviet officials, Shevardnadze was unafraid to sound like a capitalist, arguing that "it is simply laughable to be afraid of economic incentives." His flexible agricultural policies were designed to reward individual initiative, an approach not consistent with classic Marxist-Leninist doctrine—and they worked. He endorsed privatization, giving rein to entrepreneurial spirit by allowing consumer enterprises to run on semiprivate lines and making Georgia the first republic to allow family ownership of small private enterprises.

The showcase of Shevardnadze's agricultural reform was the Abasha experiment, created in a backward region in western Georgia in 1973. Shevardnadze regrouped all agricultural institutions into one management association and introduced a new system of remuneration based on a Hungarian model. Hungary had taken the lead in Eastern Europe during the 1970s, implementing agricultural reforms that included giving incentives to those who performed well and returning decision-making to local levels. In Abasha, Shevardnadze gave collective farm workers a percentage of the payment for plan fulfillment in the form of a share of the crop. The experiment, which resulted in spectacular increases in agricultural production, was extended to other regions of the republic and became the model for so-called RAPOs (agricultural-industrial associations), created at the national level in 1982.

In 1981, Shevardnadze announced that "the first steps towards applying the experience of the Hungarian Peoples Republic have yielded very good results." He visited Hungary, where he announced that the Hungarians had found "an ideal solution in the relationship between agricultural cooperatives and household farms that is advantageous to everyone."

Shevardnadze also created a new management approach, combining ministries and state committees into one State Committee for Agricultural Production in order to give more authority to local officials and escape the bureaucratic tentacles of the ministries. Other experiments involved coordination of planning and consolidation of ministries in order to strengthen local authorities. Economic experiments that had withered elsewhere in the face of bureaucratic inertia at the center flourished under Shevardnadze.

Shevardnadze took credit for improving the economic performance in Georgia: "Without false modesty it is possible to state that ... our republic has been turned into a proving ground for economic experiments, the resonance and significance of which, thanks to the support and approval of all-union organs, extends far beyond the borders of Georgia." He emphasized his commitment to innovation and experimentation:

We ... decided not to limit people—let them seek and they shall find. If something does not turn out right, the republic will not perish. Failure is also experience. In economic matters, of course, you cannot do without sober calculation, but you also cannot do without courage and even risk at times. These qualities are necessary not only in extraordinary circumstances, but also in everyday life.

Only seven months before his appointment as foreign minister, Shevardnadze claimed that there were more than thirty economic experiments operating in Georgia. While not all would be successful, all would provide experience and contribute to economic reform. He believed that the key to progress was expanding and deepening the democratic basis of management as well as encouraging initiative and competition. This pragmatic, activist approach in Georgia foreshadowed his later pragmatism as foreign minister.

Continued Attacks on Corruption

Throughout his tenure as Georgia's leader, Shevardnadze challenged corruption and graft. Black-marketeering and bribery continued to be fundamental elements of the Soviet Union's second economy, and Georgia remained second to none. Only 68 percent of agricultural goods produced in Georgia in the early 1970s were marketed legally, compared with nearly 100 percent in the rest of the Caucasus. Business in Georgia meant "favoritism, parochialism, cronyism, and careerism ... on the basis of family ties and corruption." Family members exploited the positions of high-ranking relatives, and state problems were considered in a "narrow circle of relatives, family, or close friends."

Various anecdotes illustrate Shevardnadze's unusual approach to attacking problems. He went on television to deliver angry attacks on black-marketeers and set up an Institute for the Study of Public Opinion to rally public support for a cleanup campaign. He even indulged in subterfuge to ferret out wrongdoing. Shortly after issuing an order that no produce be exported from the republic, he dressed as a peasant and drove a car filled with tomatoes toward the border. He successfully bribed policemen at each checkpoint—then conducted a purge of the police. In another incident, Shevardnadze is said to have asked his colleagues to vote on an issue with their left hands; he then commented on their fancy foreign watches and suggested that they go out and replace them with Soviet watches. Shevardnadze has neither confirmed nor denied these stories; whether true or not, they served his interest, portraying him as an imaginative battler of systemic corruption—long before it became part of the national agenda.

Shevardnadze maintained his anticorruption agenda after becoming Soviet foreign minister. He realized that many returning diplomats brought home expensive equipment such as tape recorders, cameras, and videos—and failed to report their purchases. At a collegium meeting of the foreign ministry, he announced that this practice was unacceptable and that there would be an accounting; offenders would be demoted or dismissed. He also launched an attack on nepotism in the foreign ministry and the institutes associated with it, resulting in the dismissal of numerous leading officials.

Political Experimentation

Shevardnadze encouraged and protected political experimentation in Georgia. He created high-level bodies to oversee new projects and introduced a system for the study, analysis, and molding of public opinion, coordinated by an institute attached to the Georgian Central Committee. The institute worked closely with the media to provide television interviews with government ministers during which the public could submit questions. In his own policy of glasnost, he held regular meetings with the press and urged open discussion of political and economic problems.

Although effusive in his praise of Moscow's leaders, Shevardnadze criticized such flattery in Georgia. He urged delegates to party congresses to be honest and to offer criticism of all officials, including himself, so that mistakes might be corrected. In duly 1983, at the plenum of the Central Committee of the Georgian party, Shevardnadze declared: "When I call upon comrades to point out shortcomings in the functioning of the central committee, then of course I have in mind the work of the first secretary as well. Like any other human being I have my faults, and I would like members of the central committee to point them out." This attitude was unusual in a Soviet leader, and it reflected Shevardnadze's recognition that the terrible excesses resulting from Stalin's personality cult had occurred because the leader (vozhd) was portrayed as infallible and no challenge to his authority or policies was tolerated. While the terror of the Stalin years had ended, the stultifying effects of the cult of personality persisted throughout the Soviet system.

In calling for a new relationship between party leaders and subordinates, arguing that it was necessary that power come from below, Shevardnadze also was ahead of his time. He acknowledged: "From this come well-known difficulties. One ... leader prophesied about himself: 'This democratization of yours will end up with my being removed from work.' And that is what happened. There is nothing that can be done about it; democratic power is the power of the people, and the people are just and strict."

One of Shevardnadze's most courageous acts as first secretary was his sponsorship of the movie Repentance by the late Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze, who created a metaphor for the horrors of the Stalin era in his film. Shevardnadze wrote: "The very title of the film ... presupposes ... recognition of personal responsibility." The protagonist in the film is a tyrant, with high leather boots like Stalin's, a black shirt like Mussolini's, a mustache like Hitler's, and a pince-nez reminiscent of Beria. When the movie was finally shown in 1986, it was described as "the most important event in Soviet cultural life in at least a decade."

When he approved production of the film, Shevardnadze had not been confident it would be released, but he accepted the risk because he believed it should be produced. The film was completed in the early 1980s but impounded by authorities in Moscow. Shevardnadze felt guilty, knowing he had abandoned Abuladze by not fighting the decision to impound the film. He later brought the situation to Gorbachev's attention in 1985. After reviewing the film, Gorbachev agreed that it should be released. The full Politburo finally approved the release, although many predicted—correctly, as it turned out—that it would precipitate a chain reaction of historical revision.

Shevardnadze arranged for the world premiere of Repentance in Tbilisi in November 1986 and later sponsored a screening for Western correspondents at Moscow's House of Film. According to his press spokesman Gennady Gerasimov, Shevardnadze was disappointed that the Western press corps did not appear to understand the political and historical significance of the film. His approach to Repentance foreshadowed his subsequent support for the publication of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago and the release of the Soviet Union's most famous dissident, Andrey Sakharov, several of the more dramatic steps taken by the new leadership to demonstrate its commitment to the new policy of openness (glasnost).

Shevardnadze's efforts to introduce reform in Georgia were not universally popular, and he was occasionally in personal danger. His physical courage, seen on numerous occasions, has never been questioned. In 1977, a Georgian crowd disagreed when the Russian referee's call gave the advantage to a visiting soccer team from Voroshilograd; the crowd poured onto the field, threatening the referee. Shevardnadze waded into the mob to end the confrontation. During Shevardnadze's tenure as interior minister, an armed criminal barricaded himself in a house that was quickly surrounded by police. Dressed as a general, Shevardnadze walked to the house and demanded that the man come out and surrender his weapon—and the man did so. Shevardnadze later said that he had not been afraid; he assumed the man would take the presence of a general as a compliment and would not shoot. In 1978, during serious clashes between Georgians and Abkhazians, Shevardnadze again confronted an angry mob, demanding an end to the violence. He demonstrated similar courage during the war of secession in Abkhazia in 1993, when he stayed in the besieged city of Sukhumi despite the clear personal danger.

Balanced Approach to Georgian Nationalism

Georgia is unique. Mediterranean and cosmopolitan, Georgians traditionally lived by looser rules than other Soviets. In his battles against corruption and for reform, Shevardnadze was taking on generations of easy virtue, underground capitalism, and heavy drinking. He also was taking on a strongly nationalistic republic, with a contradictory history of tolerance and ethnic favoritism. Georgians, individualistic and freedom-loving, did not give in easily.

Shevardnadze's attitude toward Georgian nationalism is highly controversial. He owed his position to the leadership in Moscow, and he became the agent for carrying out Brezhnev's policy of Russification. Many Georgians have never forgiven him for telling the 25th Congress of the Georgian Communist Party that "for Georgians, the sun rises not in the east, but in the north—in Russia." He had to walk a narrow line between Soviet authorities and his reform agenda in Georgia, which required him to mollify officials in both Moscow and Tbilisi as well as the public at large.

Along with corruption and inefficiency, Shevardnadze targeted what he termed "extreme nationalism" as one of the major obstacles to economic prosperity and social well-being in Georgia. He condemned both "national narrow-mindedness and isolation" and writers and artists who exploited themes with nationalist overtones. During the 1970s, dissident nationalism became a phenomenon in Georgia as intellectuals reacted to the corruption of the system. Among these dissidents was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, son of the prominent writer Konstantin Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia would become a longtime rival of Shevardnadze and the first elected president of independent Georgia in 1991.

During Shevardnadze's years as first secretary, nationalist sentiment was high. Emotions focused particularly on protection of the Georgian language, seen as being under attack from Moscow. The spring of 1978 saw a dramatic mass demonstration in Tbilisi against an ill-advised attempt, based on policy dictated by Moscow, to withdraw the traditional clause in the Georgian constitution affirming Georgian as the sole state language. Hundreds of students demonstrated in front of Central Committee headquarters. Shevardnadze condescendingly called down to them, "My children, what are you doing?" They responded, "We're not your children. Go to Moscow, where both your children and your parents are."

Shevardnadze, who had requested instructions from the Kremlin about how to handle the demonstration, finally decided to act on his own. He asked some of his colleagues to come with him to talk to the demonstrators, but they were afraid to face the angry crowd. Shevardnadze went alone to address the demonstrators. His arguments failed to win them over, and he ultimately supported their protest; with Moscow's acquiescence, he told the demonstrators that Georgian would remain the only official language of the republic. The incident ended, and Georgia adopted a constitution that conformed with the demands of the students. At the same time, however, legislation was passed in Moscow that called for increasing the level of Russian language training in non-Russian republics. The resulting tension led to further demonstrations.

Minority groups within Georgia also were active. Many had long standing claims to autonomy themselves, and all resented the favoritism shown to Georgians in the republic. The Abkhaz, for example, who made up only 16 percent of their own autonomous republic, created problems that worsened in the post-Soviet period. They resented Georgian dominance and demanded that Abkhazia be transferred to the republic of Russia. In December 1977, a group of Abkhaz intellectuals wrote to Brezhnev, demanding that the republic be allowed to secede from Georgia. Ivan Kapitonov, a Central Committee Secretary, was sent from Moscow to calm the situation. Various concessions were made to the secessionists, including the building of an Abkhaz university and television station and the expansion of Abkhaz publications.

Unlike most Georgian politicians, Shevardnadze understood the need for these concessions and made it clear that he would not tolerate the exploitation of other ethnic groups in the republic by allowing unfettered Georgian nationalism. He was careful to protect the rights of minorities, even accommodating the interests of the small Greek minority in the republic. This basic tolerance would be reflected in his career as foreign minister when he implemented a human rights agenda, both in order to improve relations with the United States and because he believed it was the correct policy.

On this issue, as in his effusive praise for party leaders, Shevardnadze demonstrated his ability to balance the interests and pressures of differing constituencies and to act as mediator. Whether because of his policies or in spite of them, there was a cultural renaissance in Georgia during his tenure. A new mood of optimism was reflected in the nationalist sentiment of many literary works of the period. The improving economy contributed to this sense of optimism, as did the cultural concessions granted to Georgia by Moscow during Shevardnadze's tenure.

Shevardnadze's balanced approach to Georgian nationalism antagonized those who were more extreme in attitude. In the eyes of many, Shevardnadze represented the rule of Moscow. This perception was reinforced by the fact that he came from the Guria region of Georgia. Many political struggles in Georgia can be traced to rivalry between Georgians from the Guria region and their close neighbors in Mingrelia. Most of the social-democrats who founded the independent state of Georgia that lasted from 1918 to 1921 were Mingrels; most of the Bolsheviks, who removed them, were Guris. Thus, in the eyes of many Georgian nationalists Shevardnadze had his heritage as well as his policies to overcome.


The most serious charge against Shevardnadze during his years as republic leader was that he arrested, tortured, and executed political dissidents in Georgia. While he earned praise for his crackdown against corruption, many Georgians hated him for his purges of politicians and dissidents. As he attacked those who did not agree with his positions and policies, Shevardnadze's rhetoric was harsh. In 1974, he said that little progress was being made against "outworn traditions—religion, nationalism, the psychology of property," and he called on everyone to watch everyone else. He created overlapping systems of control involving state and party watchdog agencies.

The reaction to Shevardnadze's crackdown on opponents was a wave of violence. Beginning in 1972, there were demonstrations, bombings, and attempts against his life. One such attempt almost succeeded; at the final moment the would-be assassin, Shevardnadze's chauffeur, aimed the gun at his own head and fired. A fire destroyed the beautiful Paliashvili Theater of Opera and Ballet only hours before Shevardnadze was scheduled to appear to celebrate the anniversary of the end of World War II.

The history of political dissent in Georgia is an old one, and dissent remained strong during the Shevardnadze years, as did its repression. Dissidents maintained contact with human rights activists in Moscow and created their own human rights groups in Georgia. Two samizdat journals, the Golden Fleece and the Georgian Herald, appeared in the mid-1970s. Georgian human rights activists organized a Helsinki monitoring group in 1977 to observe compliance with the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Most of the Georgian monitors were arrested within a few months and sentenced to imprisonment and internal exile.

As late as May 1982, Shevardnadze participated in a meeting of Georgian party leaders and officials to call for increased vigilance in fighting the subversive influence of Western ideology and in halting criticism of his policies. Several months earlier he had charged that the republic had not established a healthy moral-political atmosphere and called for an intensification of the campaign against "all demagogues, ... unhealthy elements, people to whom nothing is sacred, who do not perceive anything good in our life." He presumably was concerned with religious and nationalist sentiment, particularly among students. Students had played a prominent role in the demonstrations that took place in Georgia in 1978 and 1981. Attacks on those having a "pernicious influence" on youth were aimed at Shevardnadze's antagonist, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was named as one of the participants in the demonstration in October 1981. Shevardnadze's condemnation of the activities of "would-be champions of the people, slanderers, and demagogues" on at least three occasions between December and mid-January 1983 also was aimed at Gamsakhurdia.

Gamsakhurdia, who collected samizdat documents that reached the West during the 1970s, charged that Shevardnadze personally had authorized the torture of political prisoners when he was minister of internal affairs. Those charges were confirmed by victims as well as by several of those carrying out the torture.

While Shevardnadze's actions brought some improvement to law and order in Georgia, things remained far from perfect. In 1982, republic leaders were still focusing on economic crimes and parasitism, stating that there had been no decisive breakthroughs. Shevardnadze's campaign to eradicate corruption in Georgia was an ongoing, unfinished struggle, and when he returned to Georgia in 1992 he found a society still functioning in the old freewheeling, corrupt manner.

A former Georgian dissident has provided some insight into Shevardnadze's personality and performance as party leader. Alexandr Potskhishvili, who suffered persecution under Shevardnadze, said that he had believed in Shevardnadze's principles and had fought "in defense of the truth," thinking that he would be protected. Instead, he was arrested, sentenced to a year of forced labor, and kicked out of his institute. For seven years, he tried to talk to the first secretary but was consistently told that "Shevardnadze does not want to see you." In spite of Shevardnadze's past actions against the Georgian people and himself, Potskhishvili would argue that Georgia needed Shevardnadze in 1992. Only Shevardnadze was capable of leading Georgia out of the abyss, and, "however bitter I may be, I cannot but welcome his return."

Jaba Ioseliani, a dissident (and also a former bank robber and future leader of the paramilitary force Mkhedrioni in newly independent Georgia) was jailed in the 1970s when Shevardnadze was Georgian minister of internal affairs. However, Ioseliani later defended Shevardnadze, saying that it is not always necessary to fight the system from the outside, that you could fight it from within and above—as Shevardnadze did. Ioseliani indicated that Shevardnadze, as interior minister, had intervened on his behalf. Ioseliani had been released from jail in 1966 and was invited to visit the United States. He heard that Shevardnadze sympathized with his application and went to see him. Shevardnadze promised that he would try to help, but that he probably would not get approval for the trip. Ioseliani was denied the trip, but the military officer who returned his papers told him that Shevardnadze had come three times personally to intervene on his behalf, something that had never happened before.


Shevardnadze has admitted that he did not accomplish as much as he should have during his years in Georgia. The totalitarian state is a penitentiary with horrifying features, he argued, and it is beyond the power of one man to reform it without changing the nature of the state. "What's done is done.... I was forced to make unpopular decisions." He has insisted, however, that he was thinking and working in the right direction by challenging the excessive dictatorship of the central agencies and the dominance of the command-administrative system—and that what he did could have been characterized as anti-Soviet by the prevailing standards of that time. Admitting that the dissidents were normal people angry with the existing order, Shevardnadze has claimed that he corrected some things and kept some people out of harm's way.

Clearly sensitive to criticism of his repression of dissent, Shevardnadze has stated that such repression was part of Moscow's policy and that he could have done little to change the policy. But he also admits he should have done more: "Could I have prevented this or stopped it? Of course not. But I was obligated to protest. At the time, however, in the 1970s, I was not prepared to do so, either inwardly—psychologically—or politically"

Shevardnadze has claimed that he did not find it easy to stand up to authority. For years he accepted the legitimacy of the system and its leaders and only gradually developed his own system of values and the ability to take a stand. When Gorbachev announced his antialcohol campaign in 1985, Shevardnadze claimed he was horrified because of the impact this campaign might have on the Georgian economy. He himself had maintained a vineyard during his years in Georgia and understood its importance to Georgia's economy and its way of life. And yet he voted in favor of the policy, which suggested a weakness of character:

To this day, I can muster the determination to act in an uncompromising manner only after a long struggle with myself. I will not hasten to speak out until the right "critical mass" of willpower and thought spills over into a decision. This is a serious drawback for a politician and for the cause, but I cannot hide it. There is no other way to explain how and why I took so long to reach my present state.

Some observers attribute Shevardnadze's contradictory behavior to more dubious character traits. Former Soviet Ambassador Victor Israelyan describes Shevardnadze as a "great actor" as "every great politician must be." According to Israelyan, Shevardnadze might seem approachable and eager to get to know you, but he "can project any impression he thinks you want." At the same time, he "keeps his distance. He has a big smile, but the smile is artificial." Israelyan has argued that Shevardnadze is a man driven by ambition above all else.

Nevertheless, Shevardnadze had an unusual ability to lead, to take initiative, and to pursue a course of action with courage and determination. Many observers, particularly U.S. Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and James A. Baker III, describe him as a man of exceptional personal charm. One writer describes him as a man of personal modesty, integrity, and a satirical, even impish, sense of humor. He had the instincts and capabilities that every outstanding politician must have to succeed: understanding of the system and knowledge of the moves necessary to get ahead; ability to convince people and draw them into your course of action; pragmatism and adaptability; willingness to work hard; and even charisma.

Shevardnadze took these characteristics with him when he went to Moscow in 1985, bringing fresh air from Georgia to the Soviet foreign ministry. Many experts underestimated his abilities and failed to recognize that his background in Georgia might provide him with a unique view of the world and Moscow's role in it. Most certainly failed to perceive that Shevardnadze would bring to the foreign ministry a commitment to radical change and a willingness to implement reform in an unorthodox manner.

Table of Contents

Map of the Commonwealth of Independent States—European Statesxxiv
Map of Georgiaxxv
Selected Bibliography319

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