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A post-Cold War world forgets its debt to Georgia’s Silver Fox

Georgian ex-president and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze speaks in Tblisi on May 12, 2009.


Quietly, with little of the international recognition he deserved, one of the most important figures of the 20th century passed away Monday at his faded mansion overlooking the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi.

There was no statement from the White House to mark the death of Eduard Shevardnadze at age 86, and nothing from Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Which is a pity. The world owes him a great debt.

Twenty-five years ago, the international community hung on Mr. Shevardnadze's every utterance. He was the Silver Fox, the foreign minister of the Soviet Union who – alongside Mikhail Gorbachev – moved to end the USSR's dangerous confrontation with the West.

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He negotiated the first major nuclear-arms treaty with the United States, and delivered the message to Eastern Europe that it was no longer beholden to Moscow. He and Mr. Gorbachev withdrew the Soviet army from Afghanistan.

They decided to let the Berlin Wall fall without bloodshed.

"Everything is rotten," Mr. Shevardnadze famously told his friend during a walk they took together in 1984 in the Crimean resort of Pitsunda. "It has to be changed."

And change it they did. A year later, Mr. Gorbachev was made general secretary of the Communist Party. He quickly appointed Mr. Shevardnadze – who had no experience as a diplomat – his foreign minister.

Four years later, the Cold War was over, liberating tens of millions of people in Eastern Europe from totalitarian ideology. Two years after that, the USSR crumbled, freeing millions more.

Those accomplishments should have world leaders scrambling to attend Mr. Shevardnadze's funeral, which is scheduled for Sunday in Tbilisi, if only for the message it would send to Vladimir Putin and the Soviet revanchists in today's Kremlin.

But based on the muted initial response to Mr. Shevardnadze's death, don't expect them to. The commemorations of the Silver Fox, a man who repeatedly refused the option of force, have thus far paled versus the posthumous praise lavished – most notably by Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird – on former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, a man who made his name through wars against his country's neighbours.

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Part of the reason the Silver Fox's death is being met with a sad shrug is his mixed record as president of his native Georgia after it gained independence from the USSR in 1991.

Drafted to lead the newly independent country in 1992, he was successful in ending the country's civil war and bringing billions in American aid money into the country. But corruption soared during the 11 years Mr. Shevardnadze led Georgia, and he alienated his Western backers with a foreign policy that swerved between deference to Washington and the familiar alliance with Moscow.

Eventually, official Washington grew tired of the Silver Fox. It poured USAid money into opposition parties and media, and threw the State Department's diplomatic weight behind the Rose Revolution that deposed Mr. Shevardnadze and brought the reformist Mikheil Saakashvili to power in 2003.

"Resign!" the crowds shouted that fall as proof emerged that the Silver Fox had overseen – or at least allowed – widespread fraud in parliamentary elections that fall. And he did resign, once more, without bloodshed.

"There was really only one correct decision," he told me when we met a year later at the crumbling presidential residence outside Tbilisi, which the new government had allowed him to keep. "In my hand I held the whole army, with their tanks and weapons, and these people on the streets were relative youngsters. They were huge in number, but they couldn't have resisted the army. But I decided there couldn't be bloodshed."

Contrast that courage with the violence Viktor Yanukovych inflicted this year on Ukraine, another post-Soviet republic, when the crowds came calling for him to go.

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As we chatted, the Silver Fox walked me around his green-walled study, which was lined with photographs from his brief era as a superstar of global diplomacy. There he was signing papers and shaking hands with Ronald Reagan, James Baker, George Shultz, Jacques Chirac and – somewhat incongruously – smiling alongside Ray Charles.

It was a slow walk, a shuffle really. Even a decade ago, Mr. Shevardnadze seemed older than his years. His aides said he had lost much of his former verve when his beloved wife, Nanuli, died in 2004, shortly after the Rose Revolution. (Mr. Gorbachev, now 83, is said to be in ill health himself now, and unlikely to attend Sunday's funeral.)

It struck me then how little animosity Mr. Shevardnadze held even towards Mr. Saakashvili and the others who had forced him from office. He sounded like a man who felt he had played his role in history, and who was now happy to stand back and let others lead. "They'll work things out," he said with a wise smile.

It was clear that he believed that it was time for him to stand back and allow a new generation of Gorbachevs and Shevardnadzes to emerge.

Sadly for Georgia, and for Russia, Ukraine and the West, we haven't seen any of their ilk for a while.

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