A man without diplomatic experience or ambition, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze helped shape one of the most profound diplomatic developments of the 20th century -- the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a partnership between the Soviet Union and the United States. And he did it with a personal touch that is rare in the annals of diplomacy.
Remarkably, Shevardnadze was almost a novice in international affairs when his close and longtime friend, Mikhail Gorbachev, telephoned him in June 1985 to say that he had chosen the then-Communist Party boss of Soviet Georgia to be minister of foreign affairs. As Shevardnadze said in an interview last January, it was "the greatest surprise of my life" and one for which he felt unprepared.
Until that time, Shevardnadze had only occasionally traveled outside the Soviet Union, he knew virtually nothing of the issues of arms control that dominated the international agenda at the time, and he felt almost overwhelmed to meet the ambassador of another country -- let alone a foreign minister, prime minister or president.
Even after he had taken the post, Shevardnadze did not fit the usual diplomatic profile. He was not considered particularly clever, wily or adroit in his maneuverings. For the most part, he presided over a period of Soviet decline. His main achievements were to get out of an untenable and costly war in Afghanistan, to permit Eastern European nations to free themselves from Moscow's sway and pursue their own destinies, and to make a start on the reduction of the vast arsenals of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons.
In this, Shevardnadze's personal attributes of candor and determination played an important role. He and former secretary of state George P. Shultz developed a personal and professional relationship that Shevardnadze called, "without exaggeration, unique," in more than 30 full-scale negotiating sessions between mid-1985 and the end of the Reagan administration.
The bond between Shultz and Shevardnadze was forged in difficult negotiations, such as those that brought American journalist Nicholas Daniloff out of a Soviet prison in September 1986 as a Soviet spy, Gennadi Zakharov, was permitted to return from federal custody in New York. The bond deepened in negotiations over Afghanistan, strategic arms and human rights.
While Shultz and Shevardnadze spent most of their time seeking to manage a relationship that was still largely confrontational, Secretary of State James A. Baker III worked closely with Shevardnadze to create unexpected cooperation between the two great nuclear states. In 25 meetings since early last year, Baker and Shevardnadze coordinated U.S. and Soviet policy in the Persian Gulf, Cambodia, Angola, Nicaragua and, as yet unsuccessfully, Afghanistan.
Baker has said on several occasions that he was impressed, at times almost startled, by Shevardnadze's candor about Soviet policy and especially about the domestic problems of his country. Those problems appear to have brought about his resignation yesterday. In earlier times, high-ranking Soviet officials were reluctant to discuss domestic troubles with Americans for fear of being made vulnerable to threats or interference from abroad. Shevardnadze clearly considered such considerations to be outmoded "old thinking."
The son of a country schoolmaster from a small village of Soviet Georgia, Shevardnadze climbed the slippery ladder of local Communist Party politics with a reputation for being courageous and incorruptible. Employing his strength of character, a keen political instinct and the solid support of Gorbachev, he quickly shook up the Foreign Ministry after being placed there.
In place of the secretiveness and air of conspiracy that had permeated Soviet foreign policy, Shevardnadze sought to introduce openness, meeting regularly with a wide group of Soviet diplomats to debate what should come next and insisting on consideration of public opinion in the formation of policy.
Instead of heavy emphasis on military strength as the source of Soviet power, Shevardnadze negotiated to reduce arms and sharply criticized military spending and thinking.
"We have rethought the situation," he told the Supreme Soviet, the standing legislature, in a report on foreign policy last year. "Security does not mean having more weapons ourselves, but having fewer weapons against us."
As Shevardnadze later told the story, he was vacationing with Gorbachev in December 1979 when they heard a radio broadcast that Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan. Both were nonvoting members of the Politburo, the most powerful inner circle of the Communist Party, yet neither was consulted nor even informed in advance.
After coming to power in 1985, the two friends set out to arrange the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the face of the unrelenting and seemingly unending attacks by tribesmen of the Afghan resistance using U.S.-supplied arms. Shevardnadze has since said that he was secretly named chairman of a special Politburo commission on ending the Afghan war and he made many unannounced trips to Kabul in search of a solution.
Gorbachev informed Najibullah, chief of the Afghan Communist government, in December 1986 that Soviet forces were going to withdraw. The following September, according to Shultz, Shevardnadze informed him in a highly confidential backroom chat at the State Department, but few Americans, officials or otherwise, were prepared to believe that Moscow was ready to begin pulling out its troops without victory.
The withdrawal that finally began in May 1988 proved to be the first dramatic evidence that the geopolitical tide had turned. Soon, with the blessing of Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, Soviet forces were coming home from Eastern Europe as well.
Among Shevardnadze's less well-known attributes was his unflinching advocacy of democratic principles within the Foreign Ministry and the country at large. When he was challenged at the 28th Soviet Communist Party Congress in July to defend Soviet diplomacy, he turned, as he often did, to questions of the society at large, a topic rarely addressed by Soviet diplomats in previous decades. In response to the criticism, Shevardnadze said:
"As for the profound democratization of society, the humanization of domestic legislation, the restoration of rights to the citizen, restoration of liberty to those who were unjustly imprisoned, restoration of withdrawn Soviet citizenship and the opportunity to return home to those who had been defamed and banished from their country, restoration of churches and the right to say prayers . . . -- if we are blamed for this as well, we accept the accusation."
Many world leaders and diplomats expressed their dismay at Shevardnadze's resignation, but perhaps the most informed tributes came from the U.S. secretaries of state with whom he worked so closely, in defiance of the past history of U.S.-Soviet hostility and the expectations when he came to office.
"Eduard Shevardnadze is a real human being. He thinks. He cares. He has emotions. He works," said Shultz from his office at Stanford University. "As a negotiator, he was tough but he carried authority and he delivered on every promise he made."
"I have known Eduard Shevardnadze to be a man of his word, a man of courage, conviction and principle," said Baker at an unusual appearance in the State Department briefing room. Baker said that "the dramatic moves toward democratization and freedom in Central and Eastern Europe and the 'new thinking' in Soviet foreign policy would never have happened without his and President Gorbachev's courageous leadership."