The death of former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, which was announced on 7th July, will have a profound effect on Georgia’s political culture. He hadn’t been in power for a long time, but as long as he remained a living embodiment of his particular gifts Georgians were powerless to move beyond them, regardless of their better judgment and claimed values.
Shevardnadze was a classic example of someone who could only be a politician. As anyone who has edited his writings knows, he lived in a self-created world where bad was good, wrong was right, fact was fiction and truth was falsehood, and everything and everyone existed for him to manipulate. Anything was possible to Shevardnadze – provided he himself ultimately gained the greatest advantage from it.
This humble Gurian’s glittering career was held to demonstrate that in “the real world” there is no place for things like principle, decency, good intentions or anything which might smack of a higher value. Anyone seeking to act differently was trumped by the sheer venality of this wiliest of operators.
His death means no one can point to him and say that such methods are the only way to succeed. It is only to be hoped that the present generation of Georgian politicians, all of whom ultimately owe their presence to him, will have the basic humanity to take up the challenge.
Calling all bluffs
Born in 1928 in the obscure West Georgian village of Mamati, Eduard Shevardnadze was brought up playing the system. His father was a devoted Communist but his mother was anything but, and other relatives had been, or became, victims of various purges. Thus he learned early how to play off all sides, by any means necessary, in order to achieve his goals.
He had already built a more impressive party career than his father by the time he married his wife Nanuli, whose family had also suffered in purges. He thus emerged unscathed from contracting this union whilst many of those around him were forced to choose between the party and “unacceptable” partners, and gave himself an alternative selling point if opinions changed within the party at some future date.
By 1964 he was First Deputy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. He had gained this post by realising he could take over the largely hostile local party by cultivating friends in Moscow. Ironically, it was his reward for getting the First Secretary of the Tbilisi party jailed for corruption, thus removing a potentially independent figure after the Georgian riots of 1956 and enabling Moscow to present him as the poster boy of “proper” Georgians.
At this period Communist Party membership was practically universal in Georgia. Shevardnadze’s alleged “anti-corruption” drive, which actually did little or close to nothing to resolve this problem, had the effect of condemning a whole nation as corrupt for the sake of his personal ambition, and ensuring that any Georgian who wanted a better life could only do so by earning the favour of Shevardnadze and his minions. It also proved his loyalty to the system, enabling him to present himself as an enlightened reformer on the one hand, and arrest over 20,000 people for political crimes on the other, with each action justifying the other to enough people to allow it to continue.
All of this provided an easy answer to the question often asked after he became Soviet Foreign Minister in 1985 – how an obscure provincial politician had been able to rise so high. Shevardnadze devoted his life to constructing a network of endemic corruption in which everyone was ultimately beholden to Shevardnadze himself for position, security and subsistence. His much-vaunted agricultural reforms, which involved taking personal control of the means of production, buying off those who did his will with profit sharing and ensuring the rest would not have a sufficient livelihood, were emblematic of this practice.
All Soviet rulers ultimately sought to achieve such control over the population, and by this time their failed policies had left them with little choice but to try and achieve this, as they had nothing else to offer. Shevardnadze was welcomed to Moscow as a favoured son, who served everyone’s purposes but those of his people. However, Georgians had long since realised that he was not a son but a Godfather.
Darling of the West
Shevardnadze has been credited with much success as Soviet Foreign Minister, and is seen as the architect of the gradual break-up of the Eastern bloc – symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. He gained this reputation by appearing to Westerners to be a pragmatist, rather than an inflexible ideologue. Here was a man who spoke the West’s language – or so it thought, before Western leaders realised they were actually learning to speak his.
It was all the usual game. Gorbachev was taking credit for reforms which were actually being imposed upon him, from below, by party members who no longer believed in Communism. By positioning himself as the more genuine reformer, Shevardnadze could share in that credit on the one hand and be a leading critic on the other if things did not work out.
If the reforms achieved their objective, the party would retain power and Shevardnadze’s network would increase in strength within the party structure due to his influence. If they didn’t, party control would end and Eduard, Darling of the West, would lead the country into a new “democratic” future with Western support. Either way he and his network would win, regardless of the consequences.
In the end the fall of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union neither did result in Eduard Shevardnadze being elevated to the presidency of the new Russian Federation. By resigning from the Foreign Ministry to unsuccessfully paint Gorbachev as an old-style anti-Western demagogue, and then returning to it just when the West began agreeing with him; Eduard uncharacteristically outflanked himself. But there was always his power base in Georgia, which was now independent, even though it was hardly likely to welcome him back, with those dispossessed by him far outnumbering those who profited, purges notwithstanding.
Blood thicker than water
Georgia had declared itself independent under the virulentlty anti-Soviet Zviad Gamsakurdia. In order to gain power he had established the Round Table, an anything-to-anybody party which was purely a means to an end. But though his takeover was hugely popular, many within his heterogenous movement planned Gamsakhurdia’s downfall from the start.
For too long, even people who called themselves dissidents had chosen to play Shevardnadze’s game to serve their own ends, convincing themselves that as long as they were dissidents this was alright. Regardless of the democratic will, they were not prepared to live in a country where criminals were jailed, corruption was rooted out and people outside the Shevardnadze-created elites were given equal opportunities. Eduard was happy to let his system run on autopilot, knowing that the power of its inherent corruption would eventually trump any good intention.
It has never been proven that the coup against Gamsakhurdia, conducted by gangs of drug-addicted criminals sprung from jail and opposition politicians who felt they were more important than the electors, was actually organised by Shevardnadze. But the fact that the crime barons who led it brought back this man, who had been so associated with Communist rule, when they were rather obvious capitalists gives us a big clue. So too do the arrangements in parliament, in which Shevardnadze, the equivalent of President of Georgia, had his office directly underneath that of Jaba Joseliani, the biggest gang boss in the Caucasus, a most unusual situation for any Head of State.
The West hadn’t wanted Gamsakhurdia either, as he continually reminded it that everything it had said about the Soviet Union for many years was true, and hadn’t gone away just because the West didn’t want to complain about it anymore. To clean its hands Western aid poured into Shevardnadze’s Georgia, even after he joined the Commonwealth of Independent States to gain Russian assistance against a Zviadist counter-coup. The Shevbardnadze state would be a new partner, to make its creation legitimate.
Shevardnadze played by the Western book now, signed major defence agreements, built pipelines and even held elections, with a very restricted choice and clearly rigged. But none of the changes the aid was supposed to bring occurred, for a reason the West eventually had to bitterly face. The more venal individuals were, the more attracted they were to the Shevardnadze system and the greater the lengths they would go to to ensure it worked. It could never work with good intentions, or be responsive to them.
US foreign assistance and development bank credit lines created a more corrupt, more crime-ridden, less efficient, less prosperous and much less democratic Georgia than what did the Evil Empire it had once been part of, and now it was no longer someone else’s fault. Shevardnadze beat the West the same way he had beaten the Communist Party, the Soviet Union and the eventually the “gangsters” who had brought him back to Georgia to give the mafia state some semblance of creditability. Nothing was worse than his system. You played along or were left with nothing, because before you could bite it, the system itself would bite you.
As we all know, even Shevardnadze eventually ran out of steam. The US took its chance to remove him, his mantle passing to the “supposed” reformer, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. Today you will not find a single individual in Georgia who actively supports or claims to have supported Eduard Shevardnadze. Those who served him freely admit that they did it for themselves, as a life of poverty and repression was too unpleasant to contemplate—the alternative,
Saakashvili had of course grown up in the Shevardnadze system himself. He too declared war on corruption, at least in name but replaced it with purely elite, high-level top down corruption rather than the backhander free market culture of corruption which Shevardnadze had presided over.
Now pre-Saakashvili era corruption is seen as good in Georgia. Politics remained something you bribe your way into and used to line your pockets whilst it lasted. Political talk shows were the top rated shows on TV but no one knew what any of the politicians stood for. The system continued on its merry way, with the glittering career of Shevardnadze showing everyone that this was the only way to achieve anything.
Georgians will not speak ill of the dead. That is why Eduard Shevardnadze’s passing has barely been noted in the media. His rule is being illustrated by film of tanks and guns, but very little even of that. He will be given the usual honours of a Head of State but nothing more. His grave is most unlikely to become a place of mass pilgrimage, unlike that of Gamsakhurdia, for example.
Now he has gone Georgian politicians, in both the new government and opposition, have the chance to demonstrate that it is possible to build a country, and be a personal success, by listening to the people and acting with what those people regard as decency. No longer can those who do this be shown that they are not as capable as wicked uncle Eduard. But how long this window remains open, before failure to deliver makes old habits return for survival, remains to be seen.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.