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Updated: July 7, 2014 15:17 IST

Former Georgian President Shevardnadze dead

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Eduard Shevardnadze
AP Eduard Shevardnadze

Eduard Shevardnadze, a groundbreaking Soviet Foreign Minister and later the President of an independent Georgia, died on Monday at the age of 86, his spokeswoman said.

Marina Davitashvili said Shevardnadze died after a long illness. She did not say where he died.

Shevardnadze swept heroically across the international stage in the final years of the Soviet empire, helping topple the Berlin Wall and end the Cold War, but as the leader of post-Soviet Georgia his career in the public eye ended in humiliation and he was chased out of his Parliament and forced into retirement.

As Soviet Foreign Minister, the white-haired man with a gravelly voice was the diplomatic face of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalising policies of glasnost and perestroika. Following the wooden Andrei Gromyko, Shevardnadze impressed Western leaders with his charisma, his quick wit and his commitment to Gorbachev’s reform course.

Shevardnadze helped push through the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, signed landmark arms control agreements, and helped negotiate German reunification in 1990 a development that Soviet leaders had long feared and staunchly opposed.

Shevardnadze resigned in December 1990, warning that reform was collapsing and dictatorship was imminent. A year later, the Soviet Union collapsed in the wake of an attempted hardline coup against Gorbachev.

Shevardnadze returned to Georgia after its first elected President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ousted in a coup in 1992; Shevardnadze was elected Speaker of Parliament and became the country’s leader. Gamsakhurdia died under mysterious circumstances in 1993, and Shevardnadze was elected President for a five-year term in 1995 after the country adopted a new Constitution.

In November 2003, massive demonstrations that became known as the Rose Revolution erupted after allegations of widespread fraud in a parliamentary election. Police maintained a low-profile Shevardnadze later said he feared any police action against the demonstrators would lead to terrible bloodshed. After three weeks, protesters led by future President Mikhail Saakashvili broke into a Parliament session where Shevardnadze was speaking and drove him out of the building.

Shevardnadze was born on January 25, 1928, in the village of Mamati near Georgia’s Black Sea coast, the fifth and final child in a rural family that hoped he would become a doctor. Instead, he launched a political career at age 20 by joining the Communist Party, and received a university degree only 31 years later from a teachers’ institute.

Shevardnadze’s anti-corruption campaign caught the attention of Soviet officials in Moscow, and he was named Communist Party chief of Georgia in 1972. He eased censorship and permitted his republic to become one of the most progressive in the cultural sphere, producing a stream of taboo-breaking films and theatrical productions.

Shevardnadze was appointed Soviet Foreign Minister in 1985. He resigned five years later to protest plans to use force to quell unrest in the Soviet Union. He joined Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in resisting an attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and returned to the Foreign Minister’s job for a brief stint later that year, as the Soviet Union sped toward extinction.

When he returned to Georgia, he inherited a country wracked by chaos. Fighting broke out in 1990 in the northern province of South Ossetia, bordering on Russia, after the nationalist Georgian government voted to deprive the province of its autonomy.

A more serious secessionist uprising followed in the province of Abkhazia. The small region, bordered by the Black Sea and Russia, has been effectively independent since separatists drove out government forces during a 1992-93 war. The two sides reached a ceasefire in 1994, but peace talks on a political solution have stalled.

Even the capital Tbilisi was run by politically connected gangs and gang-related politicians, and legislators had to be reminded to check their guns before entering Parliament. Shevardnadze managed to disarm the most notorious gang, the Mkhedrioni or Horsemen, in 1995, after the first attempt to kill him.

Shevardnadze shepherded Georgia into the Council of Europe, and said on occasion to Moscow’s considerable irritation that Tbilisi would one day “knock on NATO’s door.” U.S. officials forged close ties with Shevardnadze, and the U.S. government gave his nation millions of dollars in aid in hopes of keeping Georgia in the western orbit.

Shevardnadze’s wife, Nanuli, died in 2004. The couple had a daughter and a son.

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