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The “Caucasus Fox” Takes a Bow

Fitting the classic description of a survivor, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze endured political crises, putsches and even assassination attempts during his 55-year career. But this weekend, he ran out of luck.

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With his government fallen, Eduard Shevardnadze will have plenty of time to contemplate his 55-year career.

If you take a close look at Eduard Shevardnadze's family tree, it comes as little surprise that he would rise within the ranks of the Georgian Communist Party.

He was born in 1928 in a western Georgian village and raised by a father who was a Russian language and literature teacher with membership in the senior ranks of the Communist Party. His brother would later become an influential functionary within the party.

But Shevardnadze's political climb quickly eclipsed the political successes of his family. He would go on to lead Georgia’s Communist Party for 15 years between 1972-1985, holding tight reign of the Soviet state and suppressing nationalist flare-ups.

Prior to leading Georgia, he worked his way up through the party, eventually serving for four years as Georgia’s interior minister. In that role, he earned a strong reputation as a man who fought against corruption in the Communist Party apparatus. Shevardnadze demonstrated his political skills and growing party clout by demanding concessions from Moscow for Georgian nationalists. In 1978, he succeeded in persuading Moscow to anchor Georgian as the region’s official language in the constitution.

A father of German reunification

Later, during the Perestroika era, Shevardnadze served as foreign minister and political confidant to then Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and emerged as a leading champion of disarmament during the twilight of the Cold War. Among his successes was the negotiation of the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between Moscow and Washington. Shevardnadze also served as one of the chief Russian architects of German reunification -- a fact not lost on German political leaders, who quickly offered Shevardnadze exile over the weekend.

Fall der Berliner Mauer

Berliners celebrate on top of wall as East Germans cross through dismantled Berlin Wall, Germany.

"Should Shevardnadze decide he wants to come to Germany," government spokesman Bela Anda said, "he would, not least because of his service of German reunification, be welcome."

During his five-year term as foreign minister, Schevardnadze drew the scorn of dogmatic Communist Party members for policies they perceived as too friendly toward the West. He resigned in 1990, warning that a dictatorship was imminent in Russia. Indeed, hardliners attempted a coup the following summer.

Struggling to avoid civil war in Georgia

Though the 1991 coup failed, it did succeed in leading to the toppling of the Soviet Union. At the time, Shevardnadze placed his political support with Gorbachev’s opponent, Boris Yeltsin, and returned to Georgia, which by then had become destabilized by political unrest. There, he took up the post of chairman of the Security Council in 1992, at a time when two renegade Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, wanted to break away from Tibilisi. More than 10,000 died in the violent two-year conflict that followed.

Shevardnadze managed to prevent the country from falling into a full-fledged civil war, but other troubles brewed. During his two terms as president, he failed to pull Georgia out of its deep economic crisis and corruption and poverty remain serious problems.

He made overtures to NATO for Georgian membership and he succeeded in getting a seat for Georgia in the Council of Europe. But these moves also drew criticism at home from detractors who said Shevardnaze was merely maneuvering to buttress his own power. They viewed with much skepticism his dramatic transformation from apparatchik to a Westernized democrat.

Though he has remained popular abroad, support for Shevardnadze in Georgia had been sliding for years. This weekend, whatever was left crumbled in a velvet revolution that mirrored similar peaceful government overthrows in Yugoslavia and the former Czechoslovakia.

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