Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1986 as they arrive in Iceland for talks with President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Shevardnadze died July 7 at 86. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who died July 7 at 86, was called the “White Fox” as much for his diplomatic skill as for his silver hair.

As foreign minister under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, Mr. Shevardnadze nimbly faced down hard-line opponents in the Kremlin and set reforms in motion that led to one of the most momentous political transitions of the 20th century: the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s entry into an often turbulent democratic era.

Former U.S. secretaries of state James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz have credited Mr. Shevardnadze with making it clear that Gorbachev was serious about arms control and other initiatives that had long bedeviled relations between the two superpowers during the Cold War.

“Eduard Shevardnadze will have an honored place in history because he and Mikhail Gorbachev refused to support the use of force to keep the Soviet empire together,” Baker said in a statement. “Many millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe and around the world owe their freedom to them.”

It was a radical legacy for a man who had been a Communist Party apparatchik from a young age. But it was not his only legacy. His renown as foreign minister was stained by his ignominious fall as president of the newly independent republic of Georgia.

After the Soviet empire crumbled in December 1991, Mr. Shevardnadze served 11 years as Georgia’s head of state and became increasingly authoritarian as he guided a fractious nation located under Russia’s belly along the Black Sea.

A small, ethnically divided country of about 5 million people, Georgia is valued by East and West as a gateway for transporting the oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian Sea. Mr. Shevardnadze received about $1 billion in economic and military aid from the United States over a decade, but corruption and poverty festered. Reports of pervasive graft and corruption within Mr. Shevardnadze’s family further undermined his support.

Amid separatist rebellions in several Georgian provinces and clamorous street protests, Mr. Shevardnadze resigned the presidency in November 2003 after the peaceful “Rose Revolution,” triggered in part by disputed parliamentary elections.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the opposition leader and future president, compared Mr. Shevardnadze to tyrants such as Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania (who was executed) and former Yugo­slav President Slobodan Milosevic (who died while on trial for war crimes).

“I am not frightened,” Mr. Shevardnadze parried. “I will not share the fate of either Ceausescu or Milosevic.”

His years advancing through the Soviet bureaucracy had shown that Mr. Shevardnadze was nothing if not a wily survivor.

Eduard Amvrosiyevich Shevardnadze, whose father was a teacher, was born Jan. 25, 1928, in the Georgian village of Mamati. In 1946, he became an instructor in the Communist youth league known as Komsomol.

By the late 1960s, he had amassed considerable political and law enforcement power as minister of internal affairs in Soviet Georgia. He gained the attention of Moscow for public safely and anti-corruption initiatives that exposed the most blatant abusers of the system: lawmakers who flaunted their mansions and luxury cars and watches.

His crusade — supported by KGB leader Yuri Andropov — helped bring down Vasil Mzhavandze as Georgian Communist Party chief, along with other corrupt officials. In 1972, Mr. Shevardnadze succeeded Mzhavandze and continued his anti-corruption drive — while also allowing dissidents and intellectuals to fill the prison.

Mr. Shevardnadze was named to the Central Committee of the national Communist Party in 1976 and soon became a non-voting member of that body’s Politburo. His elevation to the highest levels of the Soviet government followed Gorbachev’s ascension to the presidency in March 1985.

Gorbachev and Mr. Shevardnadze had known each other since their days as Komsomol leaders in the 1950s, and Gorbachev once said that they had bonded shortly before he took over as president. They had gone for a walk at the Black Sea resort of Pitsunda and discussed the future.

“Everything is rotten,” Mr. Shevardnadze confided.

The new Soviet leader said he was of similar mind and chose his friend as the new foreign minister despite his limited travel abroad and next-to-no command of foreign languages. More remarkably, he was not even Russian.

“The issue is already decided,” Gorbachev said, according to Mr. Shevardnadze’s memoir, “The Future Belongs to Freedom.”

The veteran foreign minister, Andrei A. Gromyko, a sclerotic hard-liner who had served other sclerotic hard-liners, went on to a ceremonial job, and Gorbachev named Mr. Shevardnadze as Gromyko’s successor.

The Gorbachev-Shevardnadze alliance spearheaded a change in foreign relations they dubbed “the new thinking.”

Nevertheless, foreign policy analyst Strobe Talbott and historian Michael R. Beschloss wrote in “At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War,” “Perhaps no one was more surprised than Gorbachev himself that during the last three years of the Cold War, Shevardnadze turned out to be so much more than a hand­servant to his diplomacy.

“Moved largely by sympathy for the nationalists in his native Georgia,” they wrote, “Gorbachev’s foreign minister pushed his boss further than he would have gone on his own toward acceptance of the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union.”

Mr. Shevardnadze began setting the groundwork for a summit meeting between Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Shevardnadze held private talks in Helsinki with Secretary of State Shultz, helping establish the topics on the agenda, including arms control and security concerns. (He later grew so close to Secretary of State Baker that the U.S. diplomat warbled “Georgia on My Mind” in honor of his friend “Shevy” during a gathering at Jackson Hole, Wyo.)

Mr. Shevardnadze continued a world tour, making new trade and security agreements and settling czarist-era claims over land with such Cold War adversaries as England. He also reached diplomatic accords with Japan, China and Israel.

A U.S.-Soviet breakthrough shepherded in large measure by Gorbachev and Mr. Shevardnadze was the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of medium-range missiles from Europe.

The Soviet leadership, again at Gorbachev and Mr. Shevardnadze’s direction, completed the withdrawal of Russian ­forces from Afghanistan in 1989 after a decade of warfare and occupation that led to the deaths of more than 13,000 Soviets and tens of thousands of Afghans.

The dramatic departure from the old foreign policy ways ricocheted around the Soviet satellite countries, such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. The old Communist regimes began to combust, most vividly in East Germany, where thousands of citizens tore down the Berlin Wall and danced atop its remains in defiant rhythm.

Such events caused distress among military hard-liners, who criticized Mr. Shevardnadze for “losing” the protective buffer of Eastern Europe. In April 1989, Soviet troops went to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to squash a nationalistic uprising. Many civilians were killed.

The incident was a turning point in Mr. Shevardnadze’s relationship with the Soviet leader.

“I started thinking what choice to make after those events,” he later said. “Any state needs order, and this is especially true of a state plagued by a severe crisis like ours. But I am categorically against the use of the army in punitive operations.”

In December 1990, Mr. Shevardnadze resigned as foreign minister, warning that “dictatorship is coming.” The following August, tanks rolled into Moscow as dead-enders in the military and Communist Party staged a coup against Gorbachev.

It failed, thanks to an outpouring of pro-democracy supporters and reform-minded leaders such as Boris Yeltsin, who would become president. That winter, Gorbachev invited Mr. Shevardnadze back to his old job at the foreign ministry, and he held the post for several weeks, until the Soviet flag was lowered for good from atop the Kremlin in December 1991.

Mr. Shevardnadze soon returned to Georgia, which was in bloody chaos after a civil war and the Tbilisi massacre. The nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia came to power as Georgia’s first democratically elected leader, but he fled the capital in 1992 and died under mysterious circumstances the next year.

The Georgian military, with strong backing by the Russians, helped install Mr. Shevardnadze as head of state. His ties to the old Soviet regime did not make him a universally welcome presence, but he took control of the country until being formally elected president in 1995 with a reported 70 percent of the vote.

At great personal risk, he intervened in the pro-Russian breakaway region of Abkhazia in 1993 and 1994. Russia brokered an unsteady peace and continued to seek military and economic influence in the region even as Mr. Shevardnadze steered a course closer to the United States.

Further tensions erupted in South Ossetia, and rebellion in neighboring Chechnya began to seep across the Georgian border. Mr. Shevardnadze survived multiple assassination attempts; once, rocket-propelled grenades were fired at his armored Mercedes.

The 2000 elections were marred by election irregularities, but the opposition gained control of parliament and began to denounce Mr. Shevardnadze for corruption and cronyism. Three years later, he resigned.

Mr. Shevardnadze’s wife, the former Nanuli Tsagareishvili, died in 2004. Survivors include two children and four grandchildren. Mr. Shevardnadze died in Tbilisi, a family spokeswoman announced. She did not provide the cause.

During the Rose Revolution, Mr. Shevardnadze saw his reputation as a reformist all but shatter.

“He was never a true democrat because he was a person shaped and molded in the Communist system,” George Khutsishvili of the Tbilisi-based International Center on Conflict Negotiation told the New York Times in 2003. “He was tolerant, but he was not a liberal.”