Shevardnadze's Gamble


Is Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze's resignation a desperate, last-minute attempt by a loyalist of Mikhail S. Gorbachev to prevent reactionaries from gaining the upper hand?

Perhaps. Listen: "Comrade democrats. You have dispersed, reformers have slunk into bushes. A dictatorship is on the offensive -- I tell you that with full awareness. No one knows what this dictatorship will be like, what kind of dictator will come to power and what order will be established."

An apocalyptic vision is part of Russian psyche. Why else have predictions of a civil war been part of daily debates for years now? During the 73 years of communist rule, people have experienced so little besides oppression, terror and war that they seem incapable of thinking of the future in hopeful terms at all.

As chaos and shortages have worsened, Mr. Gorbachev has played all his domestic cards. He has blustered against secessionist republics in vain. He has tried to collar and yet cajole the KGB, the army and the Communist Party. Soviet reform, even with its cherished freedoms, has become identified in the public mind with Soviet decline. Of Mr. Gorbachev's brave vision, little is left except his country's international stature, symbolized by the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.

Could it be that this is Mr. Shevardnadze's own trump card? Could it be that by resigning he is telling the Soviet people that everything of value on the world stage can be lost and nothing gained if the forces of regression prevail?

Mr. Shevardnadze spoke of his resignation as "my personal contribution, or if you like, my protest against a dictatorship." Even though President Gorbachev was quick to condemn the action, Mr. Shevardnadze said of his long-time associate: "I am his friend. I am of the same mind as he. I have always supported and will support, until my last days, the ideas of perestroika, of renewal, of democratization."

Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation and the specter of dictatorship he paints are forcing foreign capitals to think of a possibility all have long chosen to ignore: that a weakened Soviet Union, deprived of empire but still nuclear armed, might return to the Cold War mentality; that Moscow again might send inflexible and hostile negotiators to world forums. Inside the Soviet Union, Mr. Shevardnadze's warnings should ring an alarm among reformists. For he is the architect not only of an unprecedented period of East-West cooperation but also of such long-deprived liberties as freer exchanges of ideas and travel of Soviets abroad.

At moments like this, foreign nations find how impotent they are in influencing what is going on in other countries. Yet for governments around the world, this is a time to do whatever is needed to prevent a long-suffering Soviet nation from returning to the days of persecution and darkness.

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