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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December, 2003, 12:19 GMT
Yesterday's man rues Georgian defeat
By Natalia Antelava
In Tbilisi, Georgia

The road, blocked off by tanks just a few weeks ago, was empty.

Eduard Shevardnadze
Shevardnadze looks old and sad and his legendary charm is fading
At the top of the hill, dogs and couple of security guards kept a watch on the residence of a man who was, until recently, one of the world's best protected presidents.

Inside, seated on a leather couch in his spacious study, Eduard Shevardnadze was drinking tea.

"You know, Americans actually built this house for me. The walls are bullet proof. You are very safe here," he smiled.

It was that same famous open smile with which Mr Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister of the USSR, convinced the West that the Soviet Union could change and the Berlin Wall could fall.

I don't get out much these days
Eduard Shevardnadze
But now, the legendary overpowering charm seemed gone. Babu, the Grandfather, Georgians used to call him when he came back to devastated by civil war Georgia in the beginning of the 1990s. The name has never seemed so suitable before.

The man in front of me looked old and tired. He celebrates his 76th birthday in January.

"I don't get out much these days. The family tells me I should take better care of myself and go for walks. But maybe later," he said.

Just weeks ago, Babu was still in charge.

Shevardnadze outside parliament during protests
The trapping of power - and the bodyguards - are gone
But over the last decade of poverty and corruption, Mr Shevardnadze's government had become deeply unpopular, and after November's flawed parliamentary elections people took to the streets.

After three weeks of demonstrations, they stormed the parliament and forced Mr Shevardnadze out of office.

"It wasn't normal. It wasn't constitutional what happened," Mr Shevardnadze remembered.

"I was giving a speech and they broke in, and started coming towards me very fast. I wasn't going to leave. I thought to myself: whatever happens happens. I thought, if there is a fist fight, if they hit me, well maybe I will hit them back," he said.

I could have used the troops, but I know my people well. They were ready to lay under the tanks and die.
Eduard Shevardnadze
But the bodyguards pushed Mr Shevardnadze out of the parliament by a back door.

"I came here to my residence, and spent the entire night thinking," Mr Shevardnadze recalled.

"At dawn I made my decision. I had to resign. I could have used the troops, but I know my people well. They were ready to lay under the tanks and die. I had to prevent the bloodshed," he said.

It could have all been different, he added, if he had kept a tighter grip on the country.

"Democracy was my main goal. These days, in Georgia you can criticise the government as much as you can - on TV, in the newspapers.

"I created this tradition, I brought freedom of speech to Georgia, I made democracy into a priority. Unfortunately, some used it maliciously," he said.

Opposition protest
Shevardnadze says he created the free speech which led to revolution
"Often, power is tempting. It's temping to slam your fist against the table and make people scared of you. And if I had done it, this (the revolution) would not have happened.

"But my biggest achievement was that I fought the temptation. I was a communist and I became the man of democratic principles," he said.

As he spoke, numerous pictures looked down from the walls. Mr Shevardnadze's Cold War pals - among them James Baker, George Bush senior and Ronald Reagan - smiled at the man who was for many years the darling of the West.

But then the West had a change of heart and the US did not support Mr Shevardnadze during his last battle for power. Did he feel betrayed?

'No, I did not," he said. "You know, the Americans always work with the opposition. And they helped the opposition a lot here. Especially, the Soros Foundation, which helped with money and all kinds of things. But I can't blame the administration," he said.

Now, he says, he finally has time to tell the world his story.

Mr Shevardnadze is working on his memoirs.

"I think I have a lot to tell the world," he said as he sipped on his tea.

A lot indeed, for once a village boy climbed quickly through the communist party ranks and to its very top. He had influenced life in this tiny Caucasus nation for more then 30 years.

'Anything could happen'

In January's presidential election, for the first time in more than three decades, Mr Shevardnadze will have no role to play.

Except that of a voter.

His preferred candidate remains a secret, though Mr Shevardnadze admits that the man who ousted him from power, 35-year-old US-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili, has the best chance of winning.

"Saakashvili is the most serious of all the candidates," Shevardnadze said.

"But then again," he added with a shrewd smile, "Anything could happen during an election."


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