On July 7, Eduard Shevardnadze, foreign minister to Mikhail Gorbachev and a driving force behind the perestroika era in Russia, died in his native Georgia at the age of 86.
In June 1985, Shevardnadze—then a lifelong Communist official with no diplomatic experience—was reportedly taken aback when his old friend Gorbachev asked him to take charge of the USSR’s foreign policy, the New York Times reports.
Working together, the two men overhauled Soviet foreign policy—pulling the USSR back from its calamitous war in Afghanistan, negotiating nuclear arms treaties with the United States, permitting the reunification of Germany, and opening up discussions of human rights issues.
Shevardnadze’s success as a negotiator hinged on several key elements:
First, he served as a bridge builder.
Shevardnadze forged close relationships with his U.S. counterparts, Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker. After building trusting bonds with Shevardnadze, both U.S. secretaries pushed their respective bosses—Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—toward rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Back at home, Shevardnadze persuaded Soviet hardliners to soften their attitude toward the West as well as toward Gorbachev.
Second, he had free rein to promote his revolutionary thinking.
Shevardnadze outpaced even Gorbachev at times in his push to reform the Soviet system. In 1988, for example, he was the first Soviet official to dismiss the clash between capitalism and communism as unimportant, the Times reports.
Third, Shevardnadze gained a reputation for collaborating with his counterparts, as evidenced by his nickname “Mr. Yes,” writes Edward Lazansky in the online news source Russia Today.
To take one example, in 1990, he offended Soviet hardliners by persuading Russia’s leadership to support a United Nations resolution giving the United States and its allies permission to attempt to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
In his later years, Shevardnadze served as the president of Georgia. His reputation was tarnished by rampant corruption, the nation’s struggling economy, and other woes. But in the West, at least, he will largely remembered for his role in bringing down the Soviet Union, as reflected in this statement from James Baker: “Many millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe and around the world owe their freedom to him.”
Shevardnadze’s pivotal role in reforming the Soviet Union serves as a reminder that when advisers have the trust of their leaders, they can play a powerful role in supporting and carrying out creative, mutual-gains negotiation.