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He steadily rose through the ranks of the party, its Komsomol youth organization and Georgia’s police force until being named the republic’s interior minister, the top law enforcement official. He gained a reputation for purging corrupt Georgian officials and forcing them to give up ill-gotten cars, mansions and other property.

Shevardnadze’s anti-corruption campaign caught the attention of Soviet officials in Moscow, and he was named Communist Party chief of Georgia in 1972. He eased censorship and permitted his republic to become one of the most progressive in the cultural sphere, producing a stream of taboo-breaking films and theatrical productions.

Shevardnadze was appointed Soviet foreign minister in 1985. He resigned five years later to protest plans to use force to quell unrest in the Soviet Union. He joined Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in resisting an attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and returned to the foreign minister’s job for a brief stint later that year, as the Soviet Union sped toward extinction.

When he returned to Georgia, he inherited a country wracked by chaos. Fighting broke out in 1990 in the northern province of South Ossetia, bordering on Russia, after the nationalist Georgian government voted to deprive the province of its autonomy.

A more serious secessionist uprising followed in the province of Abkhazia. The small region, bordered by the Black Sea and Russia, has been effectively independent since separatists drove out government forces during a 1992-93 war. The two sides reached a cease-fire in 1994, but peace talks on a political solution have stalled.

Even the capital Tbilisi was run by politically connected gangs and gang-related politicians, and legislators had to be reminded to check their guns before entering parliament. Shevardnadze managed to disarm the most notorious gang, the Mkhedrioni or Horsemen, in 1995, after the first attempt to kill him.

The political chaos was accompanied by economic hardship. Georgia lost Soviet-era orders for its factories. Every winter, Georgians suffered gas and electricity outages. In spite of Shevardnadze’s Communist-era record as a “clean-hands” politician, corruption gripped the country at every level.

Shevardnadze shepherded Georgia into the Council of Europe, and said on occasions — to Moscow’s considerable irritation — that Tbilisi would one day “knock on NATO’s door.” U.S. officials forged close ties with Shevardnadze, and the U.S. government gave his nation millions of dollars in aid in hopes of keeping Georgia in the Western orbit.

He kept a low profile in retirement, though he did take public stances, including criticism of the Georgian assault on the separatist capital of South Ossetia that was an opening move in the brief 2008 war with Russia. In 2009, when protests against Saakashvili arose, Shevardnadze said he should step down.

Shevardnadze’s wife, Nanuli, died in 2004. The couple had a daughter and a son.

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Laura Mills and Jim Heintz in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.