Last Soviet FM Shevardnadze dies at 86

Eduard Shevardnadze, who helped end the Cold War as the Soviet Union`s last foreign minister before becoming president of Georgia, died on Monday at the age of 86.

AFP| Last Updated: Jul 07, 2014, 19:21 PM IST

Tbilisi: Eduard Shevardnadze, who helped end the Cold War as the Soviet Union`s last foreign minister before becoming president of Georgia, died on Monday at the age of 86.

He was a controversial figure praised for his role in negotiating a bloodless end to the Soviet Union`s confrontation with the West, but despised at home for his 10 years at the helm of post-Soviet Georgia that saw him ousted in a popular uprising.

"Mr Shevardnadze died today at noon," his aide Marina Davitashvili told AFP, weeping. "He was ill for a long time."

Shevardnadze won high praise on the world stage for his time as Mikhail Gorbachev`s chief diplomat, when he oversaw arms-reduction treaties with the United States and brokered the deal that brought down the Berlin Wall.

Speaking on Russian radio, the former Soviet leader recalled Shevardnadze as "Georgia`s ideal representative."

"You could speak to him directly, it was good working with him."

"He was a very capable, talented man, very much predisposed to working with people, with all strata of society," Gorbachev said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressed "deep condolences to (Shevardnadze`s) relatives and loved ones as well as to the entire Georgian people," said a Kremlin statement.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili joined in the tributes, saying the former leader`s "contribution to defining Georgia`s geo-political role in the modern world is of particular importance."

"Eduard Shevardnadze was a politician of international importance; he made an immense contribution to ending the Cold War and establishing a new world order."

But Shevardnadze`s 10 years as leader of his native Georgia ended with a dramatic fall from grace, when his overthrow in the 2003 Rose Revolution saw thousands dancing and singing in the streets of the capital Tbilisi.Shevardnadze left the country mired in poverty and chaos and remained a polarising figure until his last days.

"In Georgia he was very much criticised for the level of corruption during his tenure as president, but he saved the country from the chaos of the civil war," political analyst Alex Rondeli told AFP.

"He played a key role in strengthening European security."

Shevardnadze spent his final years in seclusion in his private residence outside Tbilisi, surrounded by photos of old friends and past glories.

Family members have not yet decided where the former president will be buried, said his aide Davitashvili, but his wishes were to be laid to rest next to his wife.

Shevardnadze said as much in an interview with AFP in 2009, expressing the wish to be buried in his garden, beside the grave of his beloved wife Nanuli -- whose death he called the "most tragic event" in his life.

The government set up a special commission to organise the funeral, saying all expenses will be covered by the state.

A tiny country of some 4.6 million people, Georgia is nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains on the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Since re-gaining independence following the Soviet Union`s collapse in 1991, Georgia pursued a staunchly pro-Western course. Its bid to join the European Union and NATO alienated former imperial master Russia with which the country fought and lost a brief war in 2008 over its pro-Russian separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In 2014 Georgia inked a historic association agreement with the European Union aimed at bringing the country closer to the West.