Eduard Shevardnadze: Leading the Soviet Union out of the Cold War

Article excerpt

What is the relative importance of leadership when set against broad social, economic, and political trends? This is a difficult equation, made more so when the actions of the relevant actors are not clearly perceived and understood. Western commentators have tended to underestimate the role played by the Soviet leadership in ending the Cold War because they have focussed on the societal problems that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, engaged in protracted debate about the contribution made by Western policies, and miscalculated the importance of Soviet policy changes. The ultimate dissolution of the Soviet empire may have been inevitable and the policies of the West important, but the timing and nature of the collapse and its impact on the international community were determined by the actions of Soviet leaders. Peaceful change was possible only because those who came to power in Moscow in 1985 were committed to domestic reform, reconciliation with the West, and non-use of force. Just as the Russian Revolution of October 1917 as defined by Lenin influenced the course of modern history, so the Soviet revolution as defined by Mikhail Gorbachev, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Aleksandr Yakovlev is having a profound impact on contemporary history. The readiness of these men to halt the arms race, renounce political and military dominance over Eastern Europe, and retreat from the Third World ended the superpower competition that had defined the post-World War II era. Their policies precipitated peaceful anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and redefined the international system. By stabilizing the USSR's external position, Soviet leaders prepared their nation for its non-violent collapse. Shevardnadze played a critical role in conceptualizing and implementing the Soviet Union's dramatic volte-face. Considered the moral force for 'new political thinking,' he was the point man in the struggle to undermine the forces of inertia at home and to end Moscow's isolation abroad. Two American secretaries of state, George Shultz and James Baker, have credited him with convincing them that Moscow was committed to serious negotiations.(f.1) Each became a proponent of reconciliation in administrations that were intensely anti-Soviet; each concluded that the history of Soviet-American relations and the end of the Cold War would have been far different had it not been for Shevardnadze. Commitment to the non-use of force became Shevardnadze's most important contribution to the end of communism and the Cold War, permitting the virtually non-violent demise of the Soviet empire and of the Soviet Union itself. Shevardnadze was more adamant on this issue than was Gorbachev; he opposed the use of force in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1989 and in the Baltics in 1990. In his resignation speech in December 1990, he predicted that the use of force would undermine perestroika. The violence in Lithuania three weeks later, condoned by Gorbachev, proved him right. NEW POLITICAL THINKING Recognition that the Soviet Union was an exhausted empire was widespread in Moscow long before the new leaders came to power in 1985. The rate of annual growth had been declining since the 1960s, and all important indicators suggested that economic performance would become even worse in the future.(f.2) The Soviet Union was not even keeping pace in the field to which it had devoted the most resources -- military technology and production. Its international position was no more promising. Every important relationship was in disarray. Relations with the United States and Western Europe were tense; Eastern Europe was a significant economic burden; and in the Third World its position had been in decline since the 1970s and was draining political and economic resources. Throughout the 1970s, Soviet commentators debated international trends. They saw an increasingly interdependent international economy and argued that Moscow's vision of separate and opposing capitalist and socialist systems was misguided and counter-productive. …

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