Georgia preying on his mind: One of the leading architects of the end of the Cold War now operates on a smaller scale - but the pressures are greater. Peter Pringle talks to Eduard Shevardnadze

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These days Eduard Shevardnadze seems physically smaller than the memory of those television pictures with George Bush and James Baker. It is as if the weight of his problems has compressed him. Tomorrow he talks about those problems at the United Nations, his first appearance on a world stage since he threw himself into the politics of Georgia in March. In the months since, he has promoted Georgia on the international scene as no other Georgian could have done, but in August he sent troops on to the streets in western Georgia; echoes of his earlier life as the country's Communist boss?

The way to Mr Shevardnadze's office shows how far he has removed himself from world politics. It goes down Rustaveli Avenue, where the burnt-out shells of neo- classical buildings and a cathedral pockmarked with bullets scar the beauty of Tbilisi's main thoroughfare; a reminder of how fiercely Georgians fought at the turn of the year to free themselves of the dictatorship of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and allow Mr Shevardnadze to leave high politics in Moscow and return to his native land.

Armed civilians stand guard at each turn in the long corridors of the building that houses the ruling State Council, which Mr Shevardnadze now leads. 'We know about plans to kill me,' he says without emotion. 'But I don't have a feeling of fear.' His face breaks into the smile that became so familiar when he was Soviet foreign minister and playing a leading role in the final act of the Cold War.

In place of shifting geostrategic blocs of powerful Western nations, he now deals with Georgia's shattered economy, a terrorist war and the ethnic rivalries of a distant mountain people known principally for the living museum they provide of strange and difficult tongues.

In his modest office, which would fit several times into the grand rooms he occupied as Soviet foreign minister, Mr Shevardnadze says, 'I should not have come . . . it was swimming against the tide, but I did not have the right to refuse.' He arrived after a bloody civil war had deposed Gamsakhurdia, the elected president, who had assumed dictatorial powers.

In the political vacuum, Mr Shevardnadze was readily accepted as an interim leader and immediately set about using his contacts in the West to strengthen Georgia's image abroad and its

future at home. But Georgians wondered about him and his Moscow connection. Was he now too close to Russia, perhaps? A tainted outsider who had spent too long in big-time international politics to have Georgia's interests at heart?

He began by using his contacts to introduce Georgia to the UN, the IMF and the Paris Club. Dealing with the warring tribal factions of five million Georgians and several million more Caucasian mountain people has not been so easy for him. His diplomatic skills are being put to an even greater test than when he was helping to bring down the Berlin Wall or get rid of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

At the age of 59, he says he will stay whatever happens. 'This is my homeland and I am here for good.' But how long he will remain Georgia's leader is another question. He believes Georgia faces a grave threat from Islamic fundamentalists whipping up Caucasian mountain people into an anti-Russian and anti-Georgian frenzy. If these groups prevent elections due next month, he says he will step down.

The famous smile comes only rarely these days. His face is troubled and his voice low when he talks of his decision to send 3,000 troops - a third of the Georgian forces - into the western province of Abkhazia, where an ethnic minority wants independence. It was against his principles, he says: he resigned from the Soviet government because the KGB wanted to put down the Baltic independence movements by sending in troops.

To send troops into Abkhazia was a painful but necessary decision, he argues. He did not set out to quash an independence movement - the Abkhazians have guarantees of the preservation of their national integrity and language, he claims. The aim was to restore order and ensure Georgia's railway lifeline. 'They were blowing up bridges, they were stopping trains, the total damage was 11-12 billion roubles . . . the police refused to obey orders because there were too many criminals all armed to the teeth.

'We made a calculation that it would take up to 2,000 troops to secure the line, and this was agreed with the Abkhazian leadership. But when the forces moved in, they were attacked . . . they were trying to kill my colleagues. My interior minister was kidnapped.'

Mr Shevardnadze sounds uneasy, even rattled. When he talks about the terrorism Georgia faces, he seems much more uncomfortable than he ever appeared when dealing with nuclear weapons. The nuclear threat was open and precisely calculated; the threat of terrorism is hidden and its extent unknown. He sees the possibility of a sinister expansion of the terrorist war in the Caucasus, pitting, for example the largely Christian communities of Armenia and Georgia against the fiercely independent mountain people to the north backed by Muslim Chechens, whose self-styled leaders regard Georgia as 'Russia's cat's-paw' and have declared Tbilisi a 'zone of hostilities'.

Mr Shevardnadze says these mountain groups are supported by right-wing nationalists from Russia; they have 'fascist biases' and can muster many troops. He claims they are even helped by other countries - outsiders - but he won't name them.

His policy has resulted in more than 70 dead in just over a month so far, and the figure rises each week. Atrocities have been committed on both sides, he admits, but adds, 'It happens in a war fought by young enthusiasts and patriots . . . I know them, they are nice lads and not even being paid.' It is a war Georgia may not be able to cope with on its own, a war that may require help from the UN.

Tomorrow Eduard Shevardnadze will be back on familar ground, addressing the United Nations about the threats that face Georgia, his international debut as Georgian leader. He is the only one of the world leaders shaken out by events of the early Nineties who has actually returned to down-to-earth politics.

Clearly, he is still much more comfortable talking about his new agreements with Russia on joint security and peace-keeping forces than he is trying to meet leaders of obscure separatist mountain groups. He is proud of the treaty with Russia. But even that has its limitations. 'The Abkhazians also signed it, but they don't support it,' he admits. The fighting goes on.

He seeks solace in grander thoughts than are necessary for solving Georgia's immediate problems. He may have moved to a political backwater, but finds it impossible to think in terms only of his local difficulties. The larger, and potentially more devastating, problems of Russia, and of the entire former Soviet Union, are still in his mind.

'The red-black forces (of neo- communism and nationalism) are gathering force and they are threatening Georgia, Russia and the world,' he says. 'They feed off the social tensions and the economic crises. We shall cope with all these armed conflicts, but we haven't faced the main problem yet. We don't know what will happen to the economy and to our society. If we do not use joint efforts to overcome them, we will have real catastrophes.'

Mr Shevardnadze believes this is not fully understood in the West. 'The understanding exists, but the estimation of the extent of what might happen has not yet been made.'

(Photograph omitted)