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The first time I interviewed Eduard Shevardnadze--Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985 to 1990, destroyer of the Soviet Union, and geopolitical relocator of the Caucasus and Central Asia--was in July 1997. He was visiting Washington to give speeches at the Library of Congress and policy research institutions, but he was still somewhat of a mystery in the United States, and his success at home was still far from assured.
I remember thinking, as we met in his formal suite in the Willard Hotel, that, even at 69, he looked almost exactly as he had in photos in the 1980s, when he and Gorbachev were trying to figure out the role of that as-yet unknown creature, a "reformed Soviet Union." The square hands and face, the compact body that seemed often to be leaning forward as if poised to strike, the great thatch of white-gray hair, the expressive and quizzical eyes: all looked to be the same.
Seeing him that day in 1997, the often-printed picture of him after the brutal assassination attempt in 1995 flashed before my eyes. The scene was a street in Tbilisi in his native Georgia and a distinctly dazed-looking Shevardnadze was clasping a rough bandage to the side of his head. His car had just been blown up by Georgian terrorists, and, worse, it looked as if his small Caucasus country would not survive the criminal gangs who roved the streets of Georgia. "Gangs roamed everywhere and fires were everywhere," he has said in his speeches, recalling the Dante-esque situation when he returned from Moscow in 1992 to lead the country. "We lived against the background of an Orwellian utopia, as the country descended into darkness."
When I mentioned the assassination attempt and got his response, I immediately realized that this was no ordinary world leader. "In reality," he said, with the small smile that seems always lurking behind his eyes, "I showed much more virility at the time than the TV showed!"
"But I think the attempt on my life was destined to happen," he said soberly. "I wasn't really surprised. And it provided an opportunity for us to part with all the dirt and garbage of the civil war around us, to say goodbye to it. My response to the attempt on my life that time was that we scheduled elections, carried them through, and intensified our struggle against violators of the law. As soon as we freed the people from the gangs of criminals and established law and order, people immediately began creating."
That sense of "creating" anew had begun to show remarkable success, even in 1997. Little Georgia, with only 5.2 million people, with a history of 2,500 years, under Russian domination since the early l800s and the homeland of Joseph Stalin and Lavrenti Beria, was becoming one of the prime examples of democracy and free-enterprise development in the world. But, in a development at least equally as important to the United States and to the wider world, Georgia had already been accepted as the strategic pivot of the oil-rich and increasingly important Caucasus and Central Asia regions that had remained tightly under Moscow's communist control until 1991.
How had he done it?
"First, there is a great potential in the people of Georgia," he began, "due to their intellectual and educational base. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country found itself in a chaotic situation due to all of these historic shifts. On the other hand, because of the intellectual base, it didn't take the people long to find a way to affiliate themselves with causes. As soon as we freed the people from the gangs of criminals and established law and order, people immediately began creating. U.S. aid was crucial, as well as that of the international organizations. As they saw us edging toward democracy, the aid increased."
This, after all, was the man, born in the rural village of Mamati in Georgia in 1928 and son of a teacher, who was head of the KGB in his home republic and head of the Georgian Central Committee in 1972 during the flying-high years of communism. Reading his biography, one could be forgiven for seeing him as an ordinary Marxist apparatchik. But during those years, he also gained an unheralded reputation within Georgia as an innovative and reform-minded leader who constantly took on the party bureaucrats and corruption, well before Gorbachev came to power and called him to Moscow to be foreign minister. In fact, both perestroika and glasnost actually began in Georgia during those early …