Interview: Eduard Shevardnadze

A Bitter Resignation

Eduard Shevardnaze
Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze (Photo: Vano Shlamov/AFP-Getty Images).

Ousted Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze has spoken with bitterness about what he called a Western-inspired plot to remove him, and stressed that he had stepped down to avoid bloodshed on the streets of Tbilisi.

Shevardnadze, in an interview with IWPR and other journalists five days after he was forced to resign as president on Nov. 23, also acknowledged that, at the age of 75, his political career was over. “No, that’s my will, my business,” he said, when asked whether he would heed any calls to go back to politics. “I don’t plan to return. I have a lot of unresolved things to do.”

He received the group of journalists on the evening of Nov. 28 in his residence at Krtsanisi, just outside Tbilisi. He sat on a leather sofa in his study, surrounded by paintings going back to the days when he was Georgia’s Communist Party leader in the 1970s, and signed photographs of himself with a string of Western leaders such as President George Bush (senior) and French president Jacques Chirac.

Shevardnadze spoke for about an hour, his mood changing throughout. At the beginning, white-haired and with lines under his eyes, he seemed very tired. He began in a halting slow voice, but gradually livened up as he got into debates with the journalists. Bitterness changed to humor and the charm he was once famous for.

The former president’s repeated message was that he had chosen to resign to ensure a bloodless end to Georgia’s political crisis. When opposition demonstrators took over the parliament building on Nov. 22, he declared a state of emergency. But he announced his resignation a day later, as the security forces begin to desert him and after a mediating mission by Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov. “I don’t want to go down in history as a man who allowed blood to be shed,” said Shevardnadze. “In my life I have always found ways of dealing with a situation. Although I have been in even more serious situations, I still found a way through and didn’t allow any bloodshed.”

The ex-president said that “the coup was prepared over several months, everything was thought through in advance and everything was built on one idea—Shevardnadze won’t spill blood.”

But he was not able to explain why he had miscalculated so badly and proved incapable of negotiating a better solution to the crisis, triggered over disputed parliamentary elections on Nov. 2.

Many of his comments suggested a man who had either lost his former political acuity, or else one whose entourage had been screening him from what was going on in the country. He said, for example, that the issue of his resignation had only arisen on the last day of the crisis, when in fact it had been discussed publicly for two weeks. And he expressed surprise at the success of opposition leader Mikael Saakashvili, even though the latter has been widely perceived as Georgia’s most popular politician for at least a year.

Shevardnadze did not blame the United States government itself for engineering his downfall, saying he had had two friendly telephone calls with Secretary of State Colin Powell. He also absolved the Russian foreign minister of blame. But he spoke with anger about what he regarded as a plot, engineered by unspecified Western figures, to bring him down.

“I can't speak about the whole country, the whole of America playing a role,” he said. “There are different forces there. Someone took part, someone helped, someone made things possible. But I don’t think that the administration itself was involved in what happened. I don’t believe that.”

Shevardnadze’s angriest words were reserved for the non-government organizations that monitored the elections—which he still insisted had been fair, despite widespread condemnation—and carried out a parallel count. He strongly blamed Western governments for giving them financial support. “Maybe it was not the intelligence agencies, but some agents. And definitely representatives of different countries. One ambassador told me that it had cost him up to $4 million.”

Later in the interview, he said that he had long detected strong Western support for the trio of opposition leaders—Saakashvili, Nino Burjanadze, and Zurab Zhvania—who ousted him.

“You know in the West they support realistic forces,” Shevardnadze said. “They were convinced that those people were coming to power. Yes, there was Shevardnadze, he was a good man, they could work with him. But he only had a year or two left and he had to go. And then whom could they deal with? So they started looking. And they found these three people, and maybe some others too. As to whether they made the right choice—let’s see.”

But when he spoke about the trio—all of whom used to be his protégés—it was with little bitterness and even some pride, despite the way they had ousted him.

He described the three as being educated, talented individuals, with special words of praise for Zhvania, now head of the new government, whom he at one time groomed to be his successor.

“While they were with me, they behaved well,” he said. “Zhvania was the general secretary of the organization which I founded, the Citizens’ Union. It was the biggest organization and came first in all elections, and Zhvania was the leader. I did everything specially, I specially created the conditions for him to be independent and grow quickly. He did grow quickly, but in the wrong direction!”

Shevardnadze said he was ready to offer the new leaders advice, now that they were in power. “I told them that if they needed some advice, I am ready. But I am not sure this kind of advice is always needed. Only a few days has passed, and I am already cut off and don't know what is happening.”

Shevardnadze sometimes lapsed into reflective mood about his extraordinary political career, reminiscing about the attempted coup in Moscow in August 1991, when he shared a room in the besieged White House with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, or about his role in the unification of Germany, when, as he put it, “we managed to extinguish that fire”, the Cold War.

He said he had received many phone calls from former friends and colleagues, “but I have to tell you honestly, I refuse to take these calls. Well, what can they say? That they are sorry, or they can tell me to be strong. But I know that myself. And I don’t want them to become part of this story.”

“Stay if you want!” the ex-president said to the journalists as they got ready to leave. He was joking, but perhaps also expressed the feelings of a man who is feeling lonely after 30 years at the pinnacle of high politics.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor. Margarita Akhvlediani is IWPR’s Regional Coordinator in Tbilisi.