Putin Draws the Wrong Lessons from Shevardnadze’s Legacy

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog



With the passing this week of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union and one of the principal architects of the Cold War’s remarkably peaceful end, the world has lost a skilled and visionary practitioner of diplomacy who helped bring about the most important transition in global politics in the second half of the 20th century.

Having forged a trusting relationship with his American counterparts, George Shultz and James Baker III, Shevardnadze used his powerful position to engineer the historic 1987 agreement to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe, and two years later the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. These bold moves, together with the Soviets’ stunning refusal to dispatch troops to prop up the embattled and sclerotic East German regime led by communist hard-liner Erich Honecker, convinced the United States and its allies that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was prepared to negotiate as well as take unilateral steps to terminate the Cold War and transform U.S.-Soviet relations.

Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, and other proponents of “New Thinking” certainly did not intend to preside over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. To the contrary, they set out with the idea of renovating socialism and the Communist Party. But they most assuredly did seek to transform the dead-end Cold War rivalry that imperiled rather than bolstered their country’s security while devouring resources that could be much better spent on improving the lives of Soviet citizens.

Gorbachev and his top advisers badly miscalculated the ability of Moscow to maintain its political influence—both globally and domestically—once “New Thinking” had replaced the policy of confrontation with the West, and the Soviet Union’s conception of national interests had undergone a fundamental reorientation. But this should not detract from the monumental achievements of opting out of the Cold War and hastening the end of occupation and repression in Central and Eastern Europe with an absolute minimum of violence.

Shevardnadze’s standing among reformers suffered greatly during his years as president of his native Georgia. It is ironic that the administration of a man so closely associated with the introduction of “glasnost” and greater political pluralism in the Soviet Union devolved into increasingly authoritarian and corrupt rule, and was finally swept away by a popular democratic movement. The 2003 “Rose Revolution” would reverberate across the region, awakening many post-Soviet autocrats to the threat posed by a mobilized citizenry intent on building a democratic society based on the protection of fundamental rights and the rule of law. The movement represented a powerful rebuttal to the view that the only way out of the domestic turmoil and criminality of the 1990s was a return to dictatorship.

His disappointing failure to introduce democratic governance in Georgia is a stain on his record, but Shevardnadze’s place in history is secure. Shevardnadze’s ability to envision a different international system and a different Soviet Union, together with his pivotal role in ending decades of political, ideological, and military competition with the West, could not offer a greater contrast to the “old thinking” of Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose armed aggression and inflammatory rhetoric has once again destabilized the former Soviet space.

Intent on crushing democracy at home and restoring Moscow’s dominance over its neighbors, Putin has carried out the first forcible annexation of territory in Europe since the end of the Second World War. His ultranationalist stance has won praise at home, where a sense of humiliation has festered since the unanticipated and precipitous decline in international influence during the Yeltsin years. However, Russian citizens and decision makers will have to deal with many of the same costs faced by their Soviet predecessors after a period of confrontational foreign policy and wasteful military adventures.

Shevardnadze’s overhaul of Soviet foreign policy was based on the understanding that a country’s greatness should be judged not by its massive stockpiles of advanced weaponry or huge armies, but by its contribution to creating a more peaceful world and its ability to meet citizens’ aspirations to live in a prosperous society. One of the many tragedies of contemporary Russia is the failure of Vladimir Putin to learn this lesson.

Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story