- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who has been living under virtual house arrest since his ouster in the 2003 Rose Revolution, says he would like to come to Washington and stay “for a very long time.”

“I would be so happy to hear some voices from America who are asking what I’m doing. It would be a great relief for my situation,” Mr. Shevardnadze told The Washington Times by telephone from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

It was not clear from the interview, his first with a Western reporter since the revolution, whether he was making a veiled request for political asylum or simply sought an extended break from the chaos of his homeland. Nor was it clear whether he is permitted to travel.

As the Soviet foreign minister during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Mr. Shevardnadze became a fixture in official Washington.

He said he remains in touch with former President George Bush and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, with whom he worked closely after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

He said he has been talking “mostly with Baker.”

President Bush and he “were occasionally writing letters to each other. But it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to him.”

Mr. Shevardnadze, who went on to become president of Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said he expects to complete his memoirs shortly.

“I hope to find a publisher in Washington. The most important part of the book is the relationship between myself in the post-Cold War era and America. I met with President Reagan over 10 times, officially, and I can’t tell you how many other meetings unofficially. I also had many meetings with George Shultz and James Baker and various politicians in America,” he said, referring to two former secretaries of state.

“I would love to have a presentation in Washington, to give speeches and to stay there for a very long time.”

Mr. Shevardnadze, now 78, served as Georgia’s president for 12 years, resigning in November 2003 after three weeks of protests over disputed parliamentary elections and widespread anger over corruption that had allowed his associates to accumulate vast fortunes.

The promises of the Rose Revolution that led to his downfall have since faded.

Last week, thousands of protesters rallied outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, demanding President Mikhail Saakashvili’s resignation. The often-brash young president, an American-trained lawyer backed by billionaire George Soros, replaced Mr. Shevardnadze.

Mr. Shevardnadze was asked whether the situation in Georgia — an impoverished former Soviet state where blackouts are frequent and heating oil was cut off this winter — is better or worse than in 2003.

“So far, things are not going well,” he said, speaking by a cell phone from his small gated residence in the old part of Tbilisi, where he remains with a special unit of government bodyguards.

“Prices have increased so much, and unemployment has increased. A legion of people were made redundant … and other people have been given higher wages at their expense.”

Moreover, tensions between Georgia and Russia have grown over the continued presence of Russian military bases in Georgia and rebellions in the disputed South Ossetia district and autonomous Abkhazia republic.

“I think the only solution is a meeting between [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin and Saakashvili. Any person is still a human being. When you meet face to face, relations can start to thaw. The United States has made it clear that it is refraining from mediating between Russia and Georgia.

“Resolution of these conflicts between South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia will not be possible in the near future. We should try to convince both Ossetians and Abkhazians that they would be happier with Georgia, but Georgia needs to be an economically strong country for that.”

Mr. Shevardnadze was deprived of a telephone during 2004. He is rarely seen outside his home, although he said he is occasionally in touch with his successor.

He spends his time reading and compiling his 500-page memoirs, often awakening at midnight to get up and write.

“Some say that I’m a sinner, and some say that I’m not. So here is everything,” he said.

His wife, Nana, died a year ago in Germany. He said he is as healthy “as a bull.”

The once-popular international statesman with a shock of white hair considered Mr. Reagan a special friend.

Before the revolution, former first lady Nancy Reagan telephoned Mr. Shevardnadze and asked him to come to California, saying, “Ronnie would love to see you.” But when he arrived, Mr. Reagan — then suffering from Alzheimer’s disease — did not recognize him.

“I felt so sad that I couldn’t travel to Washington to attend the funeral of former President Reagan,” Mr. Shevardnadze said.

Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington, said he would he happy to have Mr. Shevardnadze visit.

“I see no reason why he wouldn’t be able to travel. And I think it would be quite a scandal if he wouldn’t be.”

Mr. Shevardnadze, who survived two assassination attempts as Georgia’s leader, was asked to describe his resignation amid massive protests in November 2003.

“I was thinking more about the people than my own life. I told my wife that I would not tolerate bloodshed. Then, you know what happened.

“When I resigned, President George W. Bush wrote me a letter saying, ‘You played a critical role in the unification of Germany, in the liberalization of Eastern Europe, in the democratization of the USSR and in building an independent and democratic state of Georgia, but your resignation was the boldest step of all.’”

The Georgian Times in Tbilisi and editor Malhaz Gulashvili contributed to this article.

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