WORLD

Gorbachev’s messenger

BOB LEVIN October 6 1986
WORLD

Gorbachev’s messenger

BOB LEVIN October 6 1986

Gorbachev’s messenger

WORLD

Throughout the recent round of talks between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet point man has been Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. This week Shevardnadze visits Ottawa. He will hold three days of dis-

cussions on East-West relations with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark and other Canadian officials. A relative novice to international diplomacy, Shevardnadze is regarded as more of a messenger than a policymaker. But like Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he projects the image of a new, more relaxed Soviet Union.

For 28 years Andrei Gromyko managed Soviet foreign policy with a dour expression and frequent bouts of bombast. He appeared to plan his every move and to smile only on a previously arranged cue. But in July, 1985, Eduard Shevardnadze, an obscure Communist Party secretary from Soviet Georgia, replaced Gromyko. Smooth and silver-haired, the 58year-old Shevardnadze smiles easily and does not lose his temper. That characteristic served him well during his recent talks with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz, who denounced the Soviets for their arrest of U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff on espionage charges. But there is more to Shevardnadze than his sunny Georgian charm. In fact, he is regarded as a tough politician and administrator with a proven record of carrying out Moscow’s wishes—even against his native Georgians.

Born in the village of Mamati in western Georgia in 1928, Shevardnadze joined the Communist Party at 20 and rose to become first secretary of the Georgian Komsomol, the party youth organization. In 1965 he became head

of Georgia’s police—officially, the minister of internal affairs—and began a long campaign against bribery, extortion and black marketeering in the freewheeling southern republic, whose five million independent-minded residents have traditionally resisted the central government in Moscow.

Shevardnadze also acquired a reputation for ruthlessness in some quarters. In 1976, Soviet émigrés in New York published a series of documents on torture in Soviet Georgia. One, signed by dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia, said that Shevardnadze had set up a prison block “where the most horrible tortures were used: beatings with iron bars, prodding with steel needles and rods . . . burning parts of the body with lighted cigarettes, holding prisoners under a hot shower, homosexual rape, and so on.”

But Valery Chalidze, a Soviet exile now living in Vermont, who edited the pamphlets in which the documents were published, stressed that there was absolutely no proof that Shevard-

nadze ordered or even knew about the torture. “We must be very careful in making accusations,” Chalidze said. “All we know for sure is that the torture happened at a time when Shevardnadze was in charge of the police.” Whatever the case, Kremlin officials were impressed enough with his anticorruption efforts to install Shevardnadze as first secretary in 1972, with orders to continue the crackdown on local entrepreneurs stealing materials from the state. In the years that followed, thousands of Georgia officials were fired, and the Georgians fought back with arson, bombings and sabotage. “We have heard stories of assassination attempts on Shevardnadze,” said a diplomat in Moscow, “but we have never been able to verify them.” The danger is unlikely to have deterred him: twice he reportedly addressed angry crowds in person, the last time after 1978 riots over the government’s unsuccessful efforts to downgrade the status of Georgian as the republic’s language.

Shevardnadze also revitalized Georgia’s stagnating economy. According to Western analysts, during his 13-year rule Georgia boasted a 41-per-cent increase in industrial production and a 34-per-cent rise in agricultural output. Those successes did not escape the notice of Mikhail Gorbachev, then a rising party official in the nearby Stavropol district. When Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko in 1985, he turned to Shevardnadze to overhaul Gromyko’s old guard in the foreign ministry. New ambassadors now fill all the major foreign posts, including Alexei Rodionov in Ottawa, and Shevardnadze’s style—“tough, able and very engaging,” according to Joe Clark—is the order of the day.

Still, some Kremlin watchers say Shevardnadze presides over a ministry with diminishing power. They say that the Central Committee of the Communist Party is exercising increasing control over foreign policy and that Shevardnadze—with no real power base—may eventually be shifted to another job. “I believe Shevardnadze is the odd man out,” said a Western diplomat in Moscow. That remains to be seen. In the meantime, Shevardnadze will continue to take his polished image on the road, Gorbachev’s man carrying Gorbachev’s message.

BOB LEVIN

KEITH CHARLES

WILLIAM LOWTHER