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The Silver Fox of Dictatorship and Democracy

MOSCOW – Throughout his years in power, Eduard Shevardnadze was known as the “silver fox,” a man who seemed to glide effortlessly from leader of Soviet Georgia and Kremlin Politburo member to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform-minded foreign minister, before reemerging as post-Soviet Georgia’s pro-Western president, ironically opposing Gorbachev. He regarded himself as a hero who liberated Georgia from Russia’s tight embrace. He was also one of the most corrupt politicians his country ever saw.

By the end of his life, Shevardnadze had become a political pariah in Georgia, the West, and Russia, where he was viewed as an architect of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Yet, even if he was largely forgotten after the Rose Revolution of 2003, when he was ousted by his one-time protégé, Mikheil Saakashvili, his cunning and skill at manipulating political forces still enabled him to manage his legacy to his advantage.

The staunchly pro-American Saakashvili launched successful economic reforms and an all-out assault on police corruption, though he, too, eventually was accused of taking bribes and indulging autocratic impulses. Having come to power in the revolt that overthrew the corrupt Shevardnadze, he resorted to the same Soviet-style techniques – intimidating and discrediting opponents, dispersing dissenters by force – to keep his opponents at bay.

The question Georgians have been asking ever since is whether Shevardnadze was really overthrown at all. Knowing the extent of his unpopularity in 2003, many believe that he was ready to leave power but needed a successor who would ensure that his legacy (and his wealth) survived. To be sure, Saakashvili became famous as Georgia’s justice minister for submitting corruption charges against the Shevardnadze family, and early in his presidency was able to reclaim for the state $15 million dollars of the Shevardnadze fortune. But Saakashvili’s government never touched Shevardnadze and his family.