Staunton, July 8 – The death of Eduard Shevardnadze yesterday has sparked an outpouring of memoirs and praise about his contributions to ending the cold war and to helping Georgia escape from the chaos of the 1990s. But in many ways, his most important contributions in the transition from the Soviet world to the post-Soviet have come with his three “departures.”
His first departure, if one may call it that, came when he resigned as Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister at the end of 1990, warning that a dictatorship was coming, that he would not be complicit with that outcome, and that he would continue to struggle against it as a public figure.
Shevardnadze was certainly prescient about the former: Gorbachev was turning in a more authoritarian direction as it became obvious to the Kremlin leader that the Soviet Union was dissolving underneath him. By resigning, Shevardnadze called attention to something many in Moscow and the West did not want to acknowledge.
But even more, he showed the way to other officials that they could resign and fight what the Kremlin was doing from the outside, an action that made it easier for others to take this step. That accelerated the demise of the USSR, but it also had the not unimportant effect of making the transition less violent than otherwise.
Shevardnadze’s second “departure” came in November 2003 when after what had been a disastrous period in Georgian life, he resigned as president rather than maintained himself in office by the use of force. By doing so, he opened the way for the achievement of the Rose Revolution and Tbilisi’s increasingly pro-Western orientation at home and abroad.
Because his regime had become both corrupt and ineffective, Shevardnadze is often not given credit for what in the post-Soviet world was a quite remarkable decision, a willingness to bow to the will of the people rather than keep himself in power at the price of their blood as dictators in many of these countries have done.
Not only did that show the kind of quiet courage that is all too lacking in Moscow and other post-Soviet capitals, but it put Georgia on track both for the institutionalization of the Rose Revolution but also and what is much more important the peaceful transition of presidents and prime ministers that have followed. Shevardnadze deserves much of the credit for that as well.
And Shevardnadze’s third “departure” is, of course, his death. His passing not only represents the transition across the region from those who were close to the pinnacle of Soviet power to those who are ever-less affected by the Soviet experience, who speak their national languages or English rather than Russian and look in a variety of directions other than Moscow.
Both in the Russian Federation and elsewhere, there are still a few members of the very top Soviet leadership in power, and there are more who took their cues from that generation even as they have moved away from it. Moreover, there are some people who were in more junior positions at the end of Soviet times who want to be “more Orthodox than the Patriarch.”
But the old nomenklatura in which Shevardnadze began his career in Tbilisi and then advanced to Moscow before returning to Georgia is dead or rapidly dying off. And efforts to revive it or something like it are doomed to be both a tragedy and a farce. Its passing was as inevitable as the passing of time, but Shevardnadze made it much better than it might have been.
On the occasion of his death at the age of 86, that is something he would have taken great pride in. It is what all of us should remember him for as well.