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Shevardnadze sidesteps troubles with Moscow

Here was Eduard Shevardnadze, the internationally known statesman, visiting the White House for the umpteenth time but not looking so poised and self-assured as he did only a few years before.

This time, instead of striding confidently into the East Room as the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, one of the world's two superpowers, Shevardnadze was representing Georgia, a country that didn't even exist three years ago, a country that few outsiders can find on the map.

And this time, instead of dealing with his American hosts as an equal, a major player on the world stage, Shevardnadze was here with his hand out, begging for scraps to feed the increasingly desperate people in his war-torn corner of what used to be the Soviet Union.

It's always tricky trying to divine somebody's emotions or thoughts from their facial expressions, the way they stand or wear their clothes. But Shevardnadze on Monday was the proverbial open book.

Making his first visit to Washington as leader of Georgia, Mikhail Gorbachev's former foreign policy chief looked as if he had aged 20 years in the last four. The old bounce was gone. So was the twinkle that once lit up his eyes. Even his suit didn't seem to fit.

Here was a man who had seen all his dreams, his entire life's work, fall apart into chaos. Here was a man who was bone tired, who seemed to be going through the motions, hoping to get by on whatever residual glow might still be there from his illustrious past.

His host, President Clinton, was as gracious as possible considering that the only thing American reporters wanted to hear about at their joint news conference was Washington's burgeoning Whitewater scandal. Despite that distraction, Clinton slipped up only once, referring to Shevardnadze's countrymen as Ukrainians instead of Georgians.

The president recovered quickly, however, and went on to salute his guest's many achievements in the cause of international peace. He even managed to appear as if he really cared about the terrible things going on in Shevardnadze's homeland.

But because of the Whitewater focus, Shevardnadze didn't get the chance he deserved to tell us about his new country and its troubles. Though he thanked Clinton for the $70-million earmarked for humanitarian aid this year and the $225-million in U.S. assistance over the past two years, he wasn't really able to explain why it was necessary.

He didn't get a chance, for instance, to talk about the coup attempts and civil strife that have killed thousands and left an estimated 300,000 of Georgia's 5.5-million people homeless. He said the Georgian people would be starving right now were it not for the American help, but the word, "starving," by itself, doesn't begin to convey just how serious things are over there.

And perhaps most of all, Shevardnadze didn't get to talk about how Boris Yeltsin's Russia, America's main ally in the region, was responsible for much of the suffering.

But then maybe a news conference in the East Room of the White House wasn't the place to talk about Russia's misdeeds. When he has talked about them at all lately, it apparently has been in private.

Some of you may remember that there was a civil war last year in a Georgian region known as Abkhazia. Local rebels declared their independence from the rest of the country and scored one stunning victory after another over the regular Georgian army.

There were suspicions at the time _ never confirmed publicly _ that units of the Russian army were arming the rebels and actually helping them in the field. The Russian army's intention, it seemed, was to destabilize Georgia and keep it totally dependent on Moscow.

Though Shevardnadze has held back from talking about this publicly, he has confirmed the suspicions privately to a few visitors, among them Zbigniew Brzezinski, who used to be former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.

As Brzezinski related it to a small group of reporters over breakfast last Friday, Shevardnadze described Moscow's role in the Abkhazia fighting as meticulously planned and ruthless in execution.

After arming the Abkhaz rebels with weapons the Georgians couldn't match and directing them to victory in the field, the Russian commanders offered to help out by evacuating beleaguered Georgian units from the area. In doing so, Brzezinski said, the Russians impounded most of Georgia's heavy weapons and wouldn't give them back.

Shevardnadze, he said, was then forced to sue for peace by agreeing to join Moscow's Commonwealth of Independent States, something it pointedly refused to do on declaring independence in 1991. Clearly, Brzezinski concluded, Moscow was using its army to reconstitute _ even if in diluted form _ as much as it could of the former Soviet empire.

This conclusion may seem premature to some, especially Clinton's new deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, who has been in the forefront of focusing U.S. foreign policy on Boris Yeltsin's survival in Moscow.

But even though Shevardnadze didn't talk about it Monday, he carefully and cautiously hinted that he was, indeed, worried and bitter about Moscow's recent antics.

In fact, Clinton's foreign policy team is supposed to be conducting a reassessment of its Moscow-centric policy over the past year. There have been too many signs _ in Georgia, Moldova, Crimea, Ukraine and Tadjikistan _ that Moscow is reaching out to its former possessions and beyond to satisfy former Communists and right-wing nationalists in the army and general public.

The problem with Washington's reassessment, if it can really be called that, is that it's being carried out by the same Clinton administration types who brought us the Moscow centered policy to begin with.