Shevardnadze the Survivor

Selective memory: The ousted Georgian president focuses on his former role as a reformer in the Soviet Union.
Selective memory: The ousted Georgian president focuses on his former role as a reformer in the Soviet Union. (By Sergei Grits -- Associated Press)
By Paul Quinn-Judge
Sunday, March 19, 2006

TBILISI, Georgia

Since his ouster in the bloodless Rose Revolution in November 2003, Georgia's former president Eduard Shevardnadze has lived in old-fashioned elegance in the diplomatic quarter above Tbilisi. One recent morning, his house bathed in shadows, he talked to me about his life, reaching back through the murky events of Georgia's recent past to his role as a reformer during the last years of the Soviet Union.

The estate house was totally silent, except for the low murmur of two women chatting in a far-off room as they set a table for lunch. Apart from his security guards and three housemaids of a certain age, Shevardnadze lives alone. Nanuli, his wife of 54 years, died in October 2004 and is buried in the garden. We sit by a low table set with liquor and fruit in a large living room whose walls are covered with paintings by modern Georgian artists. When I ask about them he stares vaguely at the pictures. "I don't know much about them," he explains. "My wife did the collecting."

I remember a very different Shevardnadze in the late 1980s -- a mischievous member of the Soviet elite, jokingly interrupting U.S. ambassador Jack Matlock's welcoming speech during one reception, then making the rounds of Western journalists who until then considered themselves lucky to see a Kremlin leader at 100 paces. On one such occasion, he leaned unexpectedly into our faces and asked cheekily if we had any questions on the most delicate international issue of the moment -- Afghanistan.

He, of course, was the man who masterminded the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989, the dismantling of the Warsaw pact and sweeping disarmament treaties. In December 1990 he broke with Mikhail Gorbachev, warning of an impending coup and chiding his erstwhile friend for his passivity. During our conversation, he glided over his less glorious post-Soviet career: president of an independent Georgia that slipped into civil war and corruption, a man who was the target of three bloody assassination attempts and who, according to most enemies and some admirers, was by the end unable to control even his own family's rapacity.

These days, at the age of 78, the former leader is more subdued. He occasionally tripped over dates, then caught himself, but flashes of wit remained. He told me how he and Gorbachev had already been friends for more than 20 years when, shortly after coming to power in 1985, the Soviet leader summoned him from Tbilisi to be foreign minister. "I was mind-blown," Shevardnadze recalled, pouring a cognac. "I had been abroad three times in my life: Portugal, India and somewhere else. I told them, 'I don't even know where the ministry is.' " (Gorbachev sent a driver who knew the way.)

The new foreign minister's contacts with the United States were rocky: Ronald Reagan made it clear that he was talking to the Soviets out of duty, not pleasure. The relationship warmed, though, as Shevardnadze -- a raconteur himself -- grew fascinated by the U.S. president's endless store of jokes. "So at our last meeting before he left office, I asked him where he got them all from," Shevardnadze related. "Reagan went very quiet, serious, and I thought, What have I said wrong? Finally he answered: 'You know, something is happening with my mind. I can remember things 30 years ago, but I can't for the life of me recall what happened yesterday.' "

A couple of years later, Shevardnadze paid a courtesy call on Reagan in California: "He came out looking fit and healthy, but his eyes were empty," Shevardnadze recalled. " 'He doesn't recognize you,' Nancy said. 'Don't be offended: He doesn't recognize anyone except me.' "

The most vicious battles were fought at home, as Gorbachev and his team struggled to transform the Soviet Union economically and politically, and Shevardnadze engineered the withdrawal from Afghanistan. "When I announced to the generals that we were leaving, there was a tomb-like silence," he said. "Ordinary soldiers wanted out, but not the generals. They had become millionaires trading in drugs and diamonds." The generals never forgave him, he said.

In December 1990, Shevardnadze stunned the world by abruptly resigning, warning of an impending counterrevolution. He offered no proof at the time, but he had it, he told me. "Generals -- former Afghan commanders -- were assembling tanks and troops 100 kilometers from Moscow." Asked how he knew this, he answered indulgently. "I had between 5,000 and 6,000 people working for me in the foreign ministry system," he said. "A third of them were KGB. I was very well informed." Gorbachev, however, remained in denial, and just before the real coup was launched in August 1991 he went on vacation. "We all knew they would try something, but he went on vacation," Shevardnadze said.

During the abortive putsch Shevardnadze supported Boris Yeltsin, but their alliance quickly crumbled. Back in Georgia, Shevardnadze was sympathetic toward the Chechen war of independence, and remembers the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov -- killed in March 2005 -- as a "modest, calm man," someone "you could come to an agreement with." Aides have long linked all three assassination attempts on Shevardnadze to Moscow's anger at his independent policies. "The third attempt was the best prepared," he remarked almost appreciatively. The attackers were pro-Russian Chechens "trained for the job in a Russian base in Chechnya," he added. Surely that means that Yeltsin was behind the attack, I asked. He smiled, and moved on.

Turning to the present and the young ministers who overthrew him in 2003, Shevardnadze remembered fondly Zurab Zhvania, prime minister under the new dispensation, who died unexpectedly a year ago. Zhvania "used to call from time to time to ask advice," he said. He dismissed the official government account that Zhvania was accidentally poisoned by a faulty gas heater. "He was murdered," he said, adding that he does not know by whom. I asked if President Mikheil Saakashvili ever calls, and the former president seemed not to hear. A final toast indicated that time was up. He said he has just finished a 700-page volume of memoirs. It will be published in Germany, France and possibly the United States. The translation from Georgian to Russian will take time, he adds: Some rather frank "formulations" will need to be smoothed a little.

Paul Quinn-Judge is Time magazine's former Moscow bureau chief.

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