Tributes from friends and foes for last Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze

US President Bill Clinton (left) and first lady Hillary Clinton (right) sit with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in Washington, 1997. Tributes poured in from friends and foes for former Georgian president Shevardnadze, who died on Monday aged
US President Bill Clinton (left) and first lady Hillary Clinton (right) sit with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in Washington, 1997. Tributes poured in from friends and foes for former Georgian president Shevardnadze, who died on Monday aged 86. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

TBILISI (AFP) - Former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, who helped end the Cold War as the Soviet Union's last foreign minister, died on Monday aged 86, with tributes pouring in from friends and foes.

Shevardnadze was a controversial figure praised for his role in negotiating a bloodless end to the Soviet Union's confrontation with the West, but despised at home for his 10 years at the helm of post-Soviet Georgia that saw him ousted in a popular uprising.

"Mr Shevardnadze died today at noon," his aide Marina Davitashvili told AFP, weeping. "He was ill for a long time."

He won high praise on the world stage for his time as Mikhail Gorbachev's chief diplomat, when he oversaw arms-reduction treaties with the United States and brokered the deal that brought down the Berlin Wall.

But his 10 years as leader of his native Georgia ended with a dramatic fall from grace, when his overthrow in the 2003 Rose Revolution saw thousands dancing and singing in the streets of the capital Tbilisi.

Gorbachev described Shevardnadze as "Georgia's ideal representative".

"You could speak to him directly, it was good working with him," the former Soviet leader told Russian radio.

"He was a very capable, talented man, very much predisposed to working with people, with all strata of society." Shevardnadze's nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili, who succeeded him after the uprising, called him "an important statesman".

"Historians will have to work for a long time on a more accurate assessment of his role," he wrote on Facebook, adding that he had resisted calls to prosecute his predecessor during his own stint in power.

"We respect the institute of presidency and the country's image," said Saakashvili, who is himself under pressure from the authorities after stepping down last year.

Georgia's President Giorgi Margvelashvili called Shevardnadze "one of the most distinguished politicians of the 20th century" and praised his role in "dismantling the Soviet system" and helping the "birth of a new Europe".

Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressed "deep condolences to (Shevardnadze's) relatives and loved ones, as well as to the entire Georgian people," in a Kremlin statement.

Former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who worked with Shevardnadze to make his country's 1990 reunification possible, said he had become a personal friend.

"Something I would never have thought possible before," he said of the former first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia and former member of the Politburo of the Soviet Union.

"The announcement of his death fills me with sadness and I can only say: 'thank you, good friend of my people.'" US Secretary of State John Kerry paid tribute to Shevardnadze saying he "played an instrumental role with President Gorbachev, President Reagan, and Secretary Shultz in bringing the Cold War to an end.

"He reduced the risk of nuclear confrontation by giving new life to arms control negotiations. He opposed the hardliners and refused to use force against Central and Eastern European countries when they began political and economic reforms, and he advocated reform within the Soviet Union as well.

"As Georgia's second president following the restoration of independence, Shevardnadze helped ensure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of that fragile state during the 1990s, and put Georgia on its irreversible trajectory toward Euro-Atlantic integration."

- Left country mired in poverty -

Shevardnadze left the country mired in poverty and chaos and remained a polarising figure until his last days.

"In Georgia, he was very much criticised for the level of corruption during his tenure as president, but he saved the country from the chaos of the civil war," political analyst Alex Rondeli told AFP.

University professor Gia Nodia said Shevardnadze helped the country ride out the turbulence of the first post-Soviet years.

But, he added, "he proved incapable of introducing vital reforms and the country was on the verge of failure due to rampant corruption and weak institutions." Shevardnadze's funeral is planned for Sunday, with all expenses to be covered by the state.

Tbilisi's bid to join the European Union and NATO alienated former master Russia, with which the country fought and lost a brief war in 2008 over its separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Last month, Georgia inked a historic association agreement with the EU aimed at bringing the country closer to the West.