- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

YELTSIN PHOTOS

Divisive even in death, former President Boris Yeltsin leaves a legacy of triumphs and tragedies — both personal and political — that his Russian countrymen will be dealing with for decades to come.

Mr. Yeltsin, who died yesterday in a Moscow cardiac clinic at the age of 76, was a man of outsized virtues and vices, a onetime party apparatchik who helped bring down Soviet communism and served two troubled terms as the first freely elected leader in Russian history.

A bearish, impulsive man with a shock of silver hair and a notorious fondness for vodka, he provided the iconic image of the birth of Russia’s post-Soviet democracy in August 1991 when he climbed atop a tank in the streets of Moscow to help thwart a last-gasp power grab by Soviet hard-liners.

But two years later, it was President Yeltsin who ordered Russian tanks to fire on the parliament building in a bitter struggle over his economic reform program.

Many ordinary Russians recall Mr. Yeltsin’s two terms in power — ending in December 1999 — as a time of rising lawlessness, falling incomes and shortened life spans, botched economic reforms, a pair of bloody, inconclusive wars in Chechnya, humiliations abroad and soaring corruption at home.

His final act in power was to designate onetime KGB agent Vladimir Putin as his successor, bringing to power the man critics say has rolled backed some of Mr. Yeltsin’s boldest democratic reforms.

“I think because of what he did to end the Soviet Union, Yeltsin will be remembered as a great Russian revolutionary,” said Dmitri Simes, an authority on Russian politics at the Washington-based Nixon Center. “He will not be viewed, certainly not in Russia, as a great nation-builder.”

Mr. Putin declared a “national day of mourning” to be observed tomorrow, and tributes from world leaders past and present came flooding in. Virtually all focused on Mr. Yeltsin’s achievements in helping bring down the old Soviet state and bringing capitalism and the first stirrings of democracy to Russia.

“A man passed away, thanks to whom a whole new epoch was born,” Mr. Putin told reporters yesterday. “New democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world.”

President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac were among the world leaders praising Mr. Yeltsin’s accomplishments.

Onetime anti-communist dissident and former Polish President Lech Walesa said the world owes Mr. Yeltsin a great debt of gratitude for standing up for democracy in the crucial final years of the Soviet empire.

“Today’s era proves that his decisions were ideal,” Mr. Walesa said. “It doesn’t matter now if he made them while he was sober or not.”

The son of a construction worker jailed by Stalin’s regime for anti-Soviet agitation, Boris Yeltsin was born in a small village in the industrial Sverdlovsk region on Feb. 1, 1931. A rebellious and often unruly student, he offered an early example of his lifelong impetuous streak when he lost two fingers on his left hand while playing with a grenade he stole from a local Red Army depot.

Receiving a university degree in construction, Mr. Yeltsin joined the Communist Party at the relatively late age of 30, but progressed steadily up the party ladder, becoming regional party boss in 1976.

“I sincerely believed in the ideals of justice propagated by the party, and just as sincerely joined the party,” he would later recall.

But his decisiveness, blunt manner and colorful personality in a party of gray bureaucrats caught the eye of new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought Mr. Yeltsin to Moscow and the center of Soviet power in 1985.

The two became difficult but indispensable allies, with the populist Mr. Yeltsin bulldozing ahead with economic and social reforms the more cautious Mr. Gorbachev was attempting to implement.

But the two men quickly became rivals, and Mr. Yeltsin was fired from his party post in 1987. He staged a remarkable political comeback in the coming years, quitting the Communist Party for good in 1990, and a year later defeating Mr. Gorbachev’s candidate in a landslide to become Russia’s first popularly elected president.

He demonstrated both his courage and charisma in leading the street protests that turned back a failed coup by Soviet hard-liners in August 1991, famously climbing on a tank to lead the protests while Mr. Gorbachev was being held by plotters under house arrest.

Mr. Yeltsin made his boldest policy moves in the first years of his presidency, acceding to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire, opening the country’s borders for trade and travel, and guaranteeing such basic democratic rights as freedom of speech and regular elections.

Even more divisive inside Russia was Mr. Yeltsin’s economic shock program, designed to end 70 years of state control and institute wide-ranging capitalist reforms at a stroke.

But insiders, including members of Mr. Yeltsin’s family and personal entourage, would rack up vast fortunes from a botched privatization program, while average Russians saw their pensions and paychecks collapse in value. A financial crisis in August 1998 nearly destroyed the value of the ruble, and Mr. Yeltsin’s popularity plunged to the single digits in opinion polls.

Mr. Yeltsin’s presidency was also marred by the 1994 military action against separatists in Chechnya, a historically rebellious region in the North Caucasus. The ill-equipped, poorly led Russian forces withdrew in 1996, only to take up the fight again in 1999 under Mr. Putin, the last and most effective prime minister of Mr. Yeltsin’s two terms.

Struggling with back, heart and other ailments throughout the decade, Mr. Yeltsin managed to win re-election in 1996 over a Communist Party challenger, effectively ending the Communists’ attempt to reclaim power in Moscow. But he became increasingly reliant on the wealthy “oligarchs” who bankrolled his campaign.

Ailing and unpopular, Mr. Yeltsin pulled off one final act of political theater, stepping down on New Year’s Eve in 1999 and designating Mr. Putin as the country’s new “acting president.”

Mr. Yeltsin is survived by his wife, Naina, and two daughters.

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