TBILISI, Georgia – As Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze (search) swept heroically across the international stage, helping topple the Berlin Wall (search) and end the Cold War. As Georgian president, he ended up fleeing protesters who stormed parliament and resigning while demonstrators cheered.
Since 1992, Shevardnadze steered Georgia with a combination of vision and obstinacy. He often spoke of his aspirations to put this small mountainous nation wedged between Russia and Turkey into NATO (search) and assiduously cultivated the West. Yet he did little to attack vast corruption -- including the rumored diversion of U.S. aid money into private pockets -- and Georgia slid into poverty and disorder.
Some observers speculate that Shevardnadze once had genuine reformist instincts, but that two assassination attempts shook him so badly that he ended up caring only about retaining power at whatever cost.
Despite intense U.S. pressure to hold free and fair parliamentary elections on Nov. 2, the voting was tainted with fraud. But Shevardnadze insisted on calling the results valid, galvanizing the opposition.
Now 75 years old, the white-haired man with a gravelly voice was the diplomatic face of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's 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.
As Soviet foreign minister, 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.
Western leaders would remain forever grateful for Shevardnadze's work as foreign minister. On Sunday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called him "a towering figure in Georgian history and a close friend of the United States."
"Because of his contributions, millions of people living in the former Soviet Union are free today to pursue their own dreams in states committed to political and economic reform," Boucher said.
But many have seen their dreams fade or fail, and those nostalgic for a return to superpower status lumped Shevardnadze together with Gorbachev in the ranks of the unpardonable.
Shevardnadze was born on Jan. 25, 1928 in the village of Mamati near Georgia's Black Sea coast, the fifth and final child in a rural family that hoped he would become a doctor. Instead, he launched a political career at age 20 by joining the Communist Party, and received a university degree 31 years later from a teachers' institute.
He steadily rose through the ranks of the party, its Komsomol youth organization and Georgia's police force until being named the republic's interior minister, the top law enforcement official. He gained a reputation for purging corrupt Georgian officials and forcing them to give up ill-gotten cars, mansions and other property.
Shevardnadze's anti-corruption campaign caught the attention of Soviet officials in Moscow, and he was named Communist Party chief of Georgia in 1972. He eased censorship and permitted his republic to become one of the most progressive in the cultural sphere, producing a steady stream of taboo-breaking films and theatrical productions.
He was named Soviet foreign minister in 1985. He resigned from the job five years later to protest plans to use force to quell unrest in the Soviet Union. He joined Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in resisting an attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and briefly returned to the foreign minister's job later that year, as the Soviet Union sped toward extinction.
Shevardnadze returned to Georgia after its first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ousted in a 1992 coup. 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 his first five-year term in 1995 after the country adopted a new constitution.
The country he inherited was wracked by chaos. Fighting broke out in 1990 in the northern province of South Ossetia, bordering on Russia, after the nationalist Georgian government voted to deprive the province of its autonomy. While the fighting has died down, the region remains tense.
A more serious secessionist uprising erupted in the province of Abkhazia. The small region, bordered by the Black Sea and Russia, has been effectively independent since separatists drove out government forces during a 1992-93 war. The two sides reached a cease-fire in 1994, but peace talks on a political solution have stalled.
Even the capital Tbilisi was run by politically connected gangs and gang-related politicians, and legislators had to be reminded to check their guns before entering parliament. Shevardnadze managed to disarm the most notorious gang, the Mkhedrioni or Horsemen, only in 1995, after the first attempt to kill him.
The political chaos has been accompanied by economic hardship. In addition to losses from the Abkhaz conflict, Georgia has lost Soviet-era orders for its factories. Every winter, Georgians suffer continual gas and power outages and monthly pensions are as low as $7.
Georgia has also come under severe diplomatic and economic pressure from Russia, which is intent on keeping control over the volatile Caucasus region. Moscow has accused Georgia of aiding Chechen rebels -- charges Shevardnadze angrily denied.