Shevardnadze died Monday at the age of 86, a decade after he left office. His spokeswoman said he died after a long illness, but did not elaborate.
The white-haired man with a gravelly voice was the diplomatic face of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika. Following the wooden Andrei Gromyko, Shevardnadze impressed Western leaders with his charisma, his quick wit and his commitment to Gorbachev’s reform course.
He was a main advocate of the policy of allowing the Warsaw Pact countries to seek their own political courses. It became known as the Sinatra Doctrine, a joking reference to the song “My Way,” and was a major break with the old Brezhnev Doctrine of keeping the satellite states on a tight leash.
“He made a large contribution to the foreign affairs policy of perestroika, and he was a true supporter of new thinking in global affairs,” Gorbachev told Interfax Monday.
“His appointment as the foreign minister was unexpected for many people, but he capably conducted affairs in that post and it wasn’t for nothing that he was valued by diplomats, his comrades at work and foreign partners.”
Shevardnadze helped push through the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, signed landmark arms control agreements and helped negotiate German reunification in 1990 – a development that Soviet leaders had long feared and staunchly opposed.
“I think one can say that he was one of the significant and outstanding statesmen of the 20th century,” Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Shevardnadze’s West German counterpart in the late 1980s, told The Associated Press.
Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker added: “Eduard Shevardnadze will have an honored place in history because he and Mikhail Gorbachev refused to support the use of force to keep the Soviet empire together. Many millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe and around the world owe their freedom to them.”
But in the former Soviet Union, those nostalgic for a return to superpower status lumped Shevardnadze with Gorbachev in the ranks of the unpardonable.
Shevardnadze resigned in December 1990, warning that reform was collapsing and dictatorship was imminent. A year later, the Soviet Union collapsed in the wake of an attempted hard-line coup against Gorbachev.
Shevardnadze returned to Georgia after its first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ousted in a coup in 1992; Shevardnadze was elected speaker of parliament and became the country’s leader. Gamsakhurdia died under mysterious circumstances in 1993, and Shevardnadze was elected president for a five-year term in 1995 after the country adopted a new constitution.
He survived two assassination attempts. Many observers suggested the attacks blunted Shevardnadze’s reformist impulses and left him interested only in holding onto power.
In November 2003, massive demonstrations that became known as the Rose Revolution erupted after allegations of widespread fraud in a parliamentary election. After three weeks, protesters led by future president Mikhail Saakashvili broke into a parliament session where Shevardnadze was speaking and drove him out of the building.