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From 1985 to 1991 Shevardnadze’s accomplishments on the international stage were equal to those of Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. He convinced Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush that the Kremlin would conduct a strategic retreat of its military forces from Central Europe and the Sino-Soviet border, pursue comprehensive disarmament, and resolve outstanding conflicts in the Third World. He forged close relationships with Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker, who became proponents of reconciliation in administrations that were intensely anti-Soviet. In Moscow, the Soviet foreign minister had the toughest assignment of all: persuading Kremlin hard-liners that the moment had come for rapprochement with the United States.
The nonviolent collapse of the Soviet Union occurred because Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were committed to domestic reform, reconciliation with the West, and nonuse of force. The foreign minister understood better than his president that Moscow’s commitment to Communist ideology had limited its ability to adopt practical, constructive programs. The first
Soviet official to argue that the clash with capitalism was no longer relevant, Shevardnadze began his campaign to remove ideology as the basis of foreign policy in an extraordinary speech to the Foreign Ministry in 1988 that asserted there was no connection between national security and the class struggle.
In order to pursue their foreign policy goals, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had to take on entrenched bureaucracies accustomed to pursuing long-established agendas. Shevardnadze had to persuade, co-opt, and force the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry and the officials who ran them to accept new assumptions and directions. Within a year, Shevardnadze had turned long-time foreign minister Andrei Gromyko’s moribund foreign ministry into a major player in the foreign policy establishment. Shevardnadze was also the point man in the effort to weaken the military establishment and to push through radical arms control proposals, implement unilateral force reductions, and accomplish the retreat from the Third World.
In addition to changing Moscow’s national security policies, Shevardnadze was instrumental in changing Moscow’s human rights policies. He appointed new personnel to pursue serious negotiations with their American counterparts, and personally made sure that humanitarian problems would not block Soviet-American progress. The issue of Jewish emigration had been a major obstacle to improved relations since the 1970s, but Shevardnadze was instrumental in ending the quota system and increasing the rate of Jewish emigration in the late 1980s. Fewer than 1,000 Jews left the Soviet Union in 1986; almost 20,000 Jews left the Soviet Union in 1988 and the number of Jewish emigres exceeded 70,000 in 1989.
Unfortunately, Gorbachev tried to con and co-opt too many of his opponents and allowed too many military and national security officials to remain in place. Many of these officials participated in the failed coup against Gorbachev in the summer of 1991. It was Shevardnadze who had resigned as foreign minister in 1990 and warned that “A dictatorship is coming!” These words are particularly haunting today with the authoritarian policies and practices of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Before Shevardnadze joined Gorbachev in Moscow in 1985, he was the communist boss of Georgia, where he managed Georgia’s internal security agencies with cold efficiency. He was not known as a notable defender of human rights in those days, but he reduced corruption and eased communist controls that were stifling the Georgian economy. In Tbilisi, Shevardnadze had waged a battle against Georgian nationalists to improve conditions for various minority groups. Perestroika and glasnost were born out of their profound dissatisfaction with the Soviet condition.
Shevardnadze returned to Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union to engage in yet another battle, this time to keep Georgia from self-destruction and to create a viable government. He survived two bloody conflicts with ethnic separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as two assassination attempts in 1995 and 1998. The Russian wars in Chechnya led to increased pressures on Shevardnadze’s government, and the corruption and poverty in Georgia blocked his efforts to reform the government in Tbilisi.
With the exception of Mikhail Gorbachev, no other leader of a former Soviet republic can claim the accomplishments that Eduard Shevardnadze registered over the past five decades. Unlike Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, Shevardnadze was willing to call an election in Georgia in order to enhance his credibility and authority. And unlike Boris Yeltsin, who was unwilling to organize a political party to provide a popular base for his rule, Shevardnadze organized a political party strong enough to win a free and competitive election. His achievements in Moscow and Tbilisi were monumental.
Melvin A. Goodman (and Carolyn McGiffert Ekedahl) are the co-authors of “The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze” (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997). Goodman is also the author of National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers, 2013).