(Opinion): Eduard Shevardnadze and the politics of sheer tenacity

by Martha Merritt

Martha Merritt is a political scientist and director of international development at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame p. p. OP-ED
p. Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation as president of the small, beleaguered Caucasus republic of Georgia brings a strange and formerly brilliant career to an end, though the controversial politician’s decision to remain in the country is bound to trouble his successors. The lesson of his political trajectory is that—even for one as skilled as he—crafting democracy in the aftermath of authoritarian rule is exceedingly difficult.p. While most politicians see the rise and eventual fall of their power, Shevardnadze had a catlike ability to regenerate himself. He literally escaped death at least four times during assassination attempts.p. Equally remarkably, he rose in Soviet-era Georgian politics, risked it all by ratting on his boss, rose to membership in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Politburo, risked it all by resigning, and finally gained the presidency of a Georgia in turmoil by 1992. He then hung on to that office with tenacity, his political skill in doing so eventually outweighing his judgment and likely the interests of his country.p. Without a strong social consensus on democratic institutions and a market economy, such as that of the Baltic states, and with heavy pressure from Russia, Georgia has not been able to put weapons-heavy politics and other forms of gangsterism behind her. While Shevardnadze’s many enemies portrayed his repressive rule and the discredited elections in Georgia earlier this month as personal failures, the next Georgian president will find political institutions weak and the pull of personalistic politics strong. Even the last three weeks of public protest in forcing Shevardnadze out was not necessarily a triumph of the public that must yield democratic rule. As has happened all too often in the post-Soviet countries, frustrated publics are likely to go home and hope for something better, rather than take the risk of staying put and insisting upon it. The power brokers then move back to the center of action.p. Shevardnadze once was much respected in the West, earning him the dislike of Russian conservatives in at least equal measure. As the chief architect of Gorbachev’s foreign policy, the accusation was that he “gave it all away” to Western advantage. What Shevardnadze did as foreign minister was impress his counterparts, with his commitment to a peaceful transition to democracy and a knowledge that, as he said in his memoirs of the time, the Soviet system “was all rotten.” That such a figure sank to political lows in Georgia at least in part demonstrates the difficulty of ruling a country with lingering secessionist tensions—in Abkhazia and North Ossetia—and bordering on the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya. To be sure, Shevardnadze’s rule in Georgia was not assisted by the intense disdain the Russian military harbored for him and his increasingly desperate attempts to hold on to power. Like former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Shevardnadze struggled to establish a credible presidential network that could carry out his commands. Elections became a tool to affirm his power, rather than a vehicle for accountability and public choice.p. Both Yeltsin and Shevardnadze have now relinquished power, but neither lost it through an election that empowered the opposition. These were lost opportunities to give the public confidence and to affirm a commitment to democratic political institutions.p. Shevardnadze and Yeltsin were hailed as democrats prematurely, and then spent their careers as presidents using every fiber of their considerable political savvy to hang on to power. Both men had promise and a preference for democracy that soured in the rough and tumble post-Soviet world. A new generation, less idealistic and more sober in their approach to the West, will take over in Georgia. So far, acting President Nino Burdzhanadze and the likely winner of the pending elections, Mikhail Saakashvili, have taken pains to guarantee Shevardnadze’s safety and to assure a smooth transition. They affirm Western-looking priorities, including re-opening negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and possible membership in NATO and the European Union. But these goals will not be easily achieved. Saakashvili is a 35-year-old graduate of Columbia Law School who proved his mettle in voicing opposition to corruption but now will have to be the one to clean it up. The real test will come, however, not in his evident desire for power but in his ability to walk away from it. Charles de Gaulle is a better role model for post-Soviet leaders than Shevardnadze or Yeltsin.p. In short, a change of power does not guarantee democracy; yesterday’s opposition can become tomorrow’s despot, whether in Georgia, Russia or Iraq. Our already tumultuous decade recommends a sober assessment of Georgia’s current upheaval in government, as well as a continued focus on the means of building democracy instead of just the promise of it.

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