TBILISI: Tributes poured in from friends and foes Monday after the death of former Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, who helped end the Cold War as the Soviet Union’s last foreign minister.
Shevardnadze, who died at 86, was a controversial figure praised for his role in negotiating a bloodless end to the Soviet Union’s confrontation with the West, but despised at home for his 10 years at the helm of post-Soviet Georgia that saw him ousted in a popular uprising.
“Mr. Shevardnadze died today at noon,” his aide Marina Davitashvili told AFP, weeping. “He was ill for a long time.”
He won high praise on the world stage for his time as Mikhail Gorbachev’s chief diplomat, when he oversaw arms-reduction treaties with the U.S. and brokered the deal that brought down the Berlin Wall.
But his 10 years as leader of his native Georgia ended with a dramatic fall from grace, when his overthrow in the 2003 Rose Revolution saw thousands dancing and singing in the streets of the capital Tbilisi.
Gorbachev described him as “Georgia’s ideal representative.”
“You could speak to him directly, it was good working with him,” the former Soviet leader told Russian radio. “He was a very capable, talented man, very much predisposed to working with people, with all strata of society.”
Shevardnadze’s nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili, who succeeded him after the uprising, called him “an important statesman.”
“Historians will have to work for long time on a more accurate assessment of his role,” he wrote on Facebook, adding that he had resisted calls to prosecute his predecessor during his own stint in power.
“We respect the institute of presidency and the country’s image,” said Saakashvili, who is himself under pressure from the authorities after stepping down last year.
Georgia’s incumbent President Giorgi Margvelashvili called Shevardnadze “one of the most distinguished politicians of the 20th century” and praised his role in “dismantling the Soviet system” and helping the “birth of a new Europe.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressed “deep condolences to [Shevardnadze’s] relatives and loved ones, as well as to the entire Georgian people,” in a Kremlin statement.
The respected former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said the former first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia and former member of the Politburo of the Soviet Union had become a personal friend, “Something I would never have thought possible before.”
“The announcement of his death fills me with sadness and I can only say: ‘Thank you, good friend of my people,’” he added.
Shevardnadze left the country mired in poverty and chaos and remained a polarizing figure until his last days.
“In Georgia, he was very much criticized for the level of corruption during his tenure as president, but he saved the country from the chaos of the civil war,” political analyst Alex Rondeli told AFP.
University Professor Gia Nodia said Shevardnadze helped the country ride out the turbulence of the first post-Soviet years.
But, he added, “he proved incapable of introducing vital reforms and the country was on the verge of failure due to rampant corruption and weak institutions.”
Shevardnadze spent his final years in seclusion in his private residence outside Tbilisi, surrounded by photos of old friends and past glories.
Shevardnadze told AFP in 2009 that he wanted to be laid to rest in his own garden, next to the grave of his beloved wife Nanuli, whose death he called the “most tragic event” of his life.
Georgia’s government has set up a commission to organize the funeral, planned for Sunday, and all expenses will be covered by the state.
Since gaining independence following the Soviet collapse in 1991, Georgia, a tiny country of 4.6 million, has pursued a staunchly pro-Western course. Last month, it inked a historic association agreement with the EU aimed at bringing the country closer to the West.