Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin Dies
Yeltsin, who had long been unwell, died at 3:45 pm (1145 GMT) in Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital, presidential medical service chief Sergei Mironov said.
The Kremlin said he would be buried in Moscow on Wednesday, a national day of mourning. Western leaders remembered the man who led Russia from 1991 to 1999 through an epic but chaotic struggle to shake off the legacy of totalitarian Soviet rule. But Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, paid a mixed tribute to his successor.
"I offer my deepest condolences to the family of a man on whose shoulders rested many great deeds for the good of the country and serious mistakes -- a tragic fate," Gorbachev said. US President George W. Bush hailed a "historic figure who served his country during a time of momentous change." British Prime Minister Tony Blair applauded a "remarkable man who... played a vital role at a crucial time". President Vladimir Putin -- widely accused of reversing democracy in Russia since taking over from Yeltsin -- said that under his predecessor "a newly democratic Russia was born, and a free nation opened to the world."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, expressed sadness at the news. "President Yeltsin will be remembered for the critical role he played in advancing political and economic reforms in Russia, as well as in fostering rapprochement between East and West," he said in a statement.
Few were left unmoved by a career in which he helped deliver the coup de grace to the defunct Soviet empire, gave Russians unprecedented freedoms, yet at the same time oversaw spectacular economic and political decline.
A bear-like figure with a penchant for flamboyant gestures, Yeltsin will be best remembered for bravely clambering onto a tank sent into Moscow in 1991 by communist hardliners attempting a coup in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
His defiance galvanised pro-democracy supporters, ushered in the Soviet collapse in December 1991 and Yeltsin's turbulent eight-year rule. Faced with the near-disintegration of the once-mighty Soviet armed forces and social system, Yeltsin sought to drag Russia into the modern age. He forced the bankrupt communist economy to adopt capitalism, unleashed political pluralism, and allowed a vibrant, freewheeling media. That made Yeltsin a hero to many in the West, but his reputation increasingly suffered from heavy drinking, secret hospitalisations after heart attacks, and the disastrous Chechnya war.
His domestic popularity went into freefall. An overwhelming majority of Russians still blame Yeltsin for Russia's slide from superpower status to economic basket case, playing second fiddle to the United States on the international stage.
Only the rise of Yeltsin's successor, ex-KGB officer Putin, has healed those feelings of humiliation -- along with the rolling-back of many of Yeltsin's liberal reforms.
In a poll by the Levada Analytical Centre in December, 70 percent said the Yeltsin era did more harm than good. Half thought he should be prosecuted. Friends said history would judge Yeltsin more favourably as the father -- however flawed -- of Russian democracy. "I consider that (he) did the absolute impossible. He brought us from no freedom to liberty," said Anatoly Chubais, one of the architects of liberal economic reforms under Yeltsin.
Yeltsin was born in 1931 near the Ural mountains city of Yekaterinburg and became a construction engineer before embarking on a political career in the Communist Party. In 1991, he was elected the Russian Federation's first president and in August of the same year he rallied Russian democrats to defy a junta of generals and other apparatchiks who had ousted Gorbachev in a coup.
On December 8, 1991, Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union with a stroke of the pen and ushered in the new Russia. After two embattled terms as president, he went into retirement after a surprise announcement on New Year's Eve 1999.
His declaration that Putin, then prime minister, would take his place was part of a carefully prepared plan to hand power to a powerful group of men with strong KGB links. One of Putin's first acts in office was to grant Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. He then lived a quiet life hunting and playing some tennis in his residence in Barvikha, near Moscow, where he lived with his wife Naina.
In western Europe Yeltsin is remembered as a peacemaker who built bridges in the aftermath of the Cold War -- even many Russians now see this rapprochment as a surrender. Yeltsin was "at the forefront of the effort to overcome the legacy of the Cold War," said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. "This historic effort to set aside the fears and stereotypes of the past in favour of cooperation in facing the challenges of the future." (Bernama)
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