WASHINGTON (AP) — Eduard Shevardnadze was sitting in the front of the small Yak-40 jet that was screaming toward liftoff from Sukhumi. It was 10 p.m. The runway and cabin lights were off. The Georgian leader had spent the day with his troops who were defending the Black Sea city. Abkhazian separatist forces were pouring in rockets.
Shevardnadze, who died Monday at 86, made the dangerous journey to Sukhumi in early March 1993 to take symbolic charge of the Georgian forces. I and my CNN television crew flew with the Georgian leader from the capital, Tbilisi. We spent the day wandering the city, darting into cellar doorways when rocket fire was heard.
At a poorly equipped hospital, Georgian fighters lay bloodied on the floor, and triage doctors darted from one horribly wounded soldier to the next. Shevardnadze visited the clinic, offering comfort to the wounded. He then set off to visit his forces at hilltop positions on the outskirts of Sukhumi.
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and Georgian independence, separatists in the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were trying to break free from Georgian control.
Shevardnadze, once the vibrant and new-thinking foreign minister under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, had returned to his homeland – the former Soviet Republic of Georgia – after Moscow’s sprawling Eurasian empire disintegrated on Christmas night 1991.
Toward the end of that damp and chilly March day in Sukhumi, Shevardnadze drove up in a Russian-made Volga sedan – no armor plating visible – and sat down for an interview in the artillery-blasted regional parliament. He removed his bullet-proof vest and helmet.
He spoke of the bloody ethnic cleansing at the hands of Abkhazian fighters who were driving tens of thousands of Georgians from their homes in the region. Shelters in Tbilisi were full, and even what was then the best hotel in the capital was crammed with displaced Georgian families.
Shevardnadze ducked a question about his own forces having behaved like the Abkhazians. Ethnic hatred had reached extremes.
Shevardnadze said a small country like Georgia could ill afford to lose Abkhazia and its Black Sea coastline, and could not surrender the important port at Sukhumi.
The Georgian leader was calm, dismissing questions about having risked his life in the Abkhazian bombardment. He said he had no choice but to visit the front lines to boost the morale of his forces. The city had been under siege for four months.
I had been with Shevardnadze many times during my long stint in Moscow. Also memorable was one night when Gorbachev was held captive during a failed coup against him in 1991. All our live broadcasting was done on the roof of our building in central Moscow. The only access was to clamber up a steel ladder and through a tiny hatch.
Shevardnadze popped out of that hatch and spoke witheringly of the coup plotters.
He and Gorbachev were both members of the ruling Soviet Politburo when Gorbachev was named to the top post of general secretary in 1985. They were old friends and men with a liberal bent. Shevardnadze said in a memoir that he was shocked when Gorbachev called him to Moscow to be foreign minister.
Before Gorbachev took control of the Soviet Union and began his policies of perestroika and glasnost (restructuring and openness), I had heard from a KGB source that the two men met by chance in the southern Russian city of Stavropol, near Gorbachev’s home village. I was never able to confirm the report. But the source said the two men had a long talk and agreed that the country needed to end its occupation of Afghanistan and drop its Cold War stance toward the United States and the West.
Once Gorbachev took power and Shevardnadze was foreign minister, the two men began a dramatic dismantling of Soviet control over its Central and East European satellite nations, pulled forces back inside the Soviet Union and set off on successful negotiations with Washington to limit nuclear weapons. They moved as if taking care of a checklist of international problems – a list that originated in that Stavropol meeting.
But by 1990, Shevardnadze, showing the convictions he had displayed on the Sukhumi journey, quit as foreign minister and warned of a dictatorship. He was worried, he later wrote, of a new dictatorship in the country, as Gorbachev was believed to be falling under the influence of communist hard-liners.
But in the course of his leadership of the tiny country of his birth, Shevardnadze’s administration became increasingly akin to the dictatorial stance he had warned Gorbachev about more than a decade earlier. He was driven from office in a 2003 uprising, but had done much to pull Georgia back from the failed-nation brink it had reached when he took control.
It was, for a time, Georgia’s great good fortune that the Yak-40 made it safely back to Tbilisi.
Steven R. Hurst is AP international political writer and covered the Soviet Union and Russia from 1979 through 1993 for The Associated Press, NBC News and CNN.