Defender of democracy who changed life in Russia forever

Key quote

"He was a remarkable man who saw the need for democratic and economic reform and in defending it played a vital role at a crucial time in Russia's history." - TONY BLAIR

Story in full BORIS Yeltsin, the former Russian president who broke up the Soviet Union and dismantled the country's communist economy, died yesterday from heart problems.

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Yeltsin, who had suffered from poor health, depression and alcoholism for decades, ruled Russia throughout the chaotic 1990s and helped install the country's current president, Vladimir Putin.

He died yesterday afternoon in a Moscow hospital. He was aged 76.

Hailed in the West as a liberal reformer and a defender of democracy - remembered for preventing a coup in 1991 - he was despised by the end of his second term in Russia for the collapse of the country's financial system in 1998 and for humiliating the nation abroad with his drunken antics.

Mr Yeltsin, who ruled Russia from 1991 to 1999, had made a stunning debut as president. He introduced many basics of democracy, guaranteeing the rights to free speech, private property and multi-party elections, and opening the borders to trade and travel. Although full of bluster, he revealed more of his personal life and private doubts than any previous Russian leader had.

"The debilitating bouts of depression, the grave second thoughts, the insomnia and headaches in the middle of the night, the tears and despair ... the hurt from people close to me who did not support me at the last minute, who didn't hold up, who deceived me - I have had to bear all of this," he wrote in his 1994 memoir, The Struggle for Russia.

Mr Yeltsin did damage his democratic credentials by using force to solve political disputes, though he claimed his actions were necessary to keep the country together.

He sent tanks and troops in October 1993 to flush armed, hardline supporters out of a hostile Russian parliament after they had triggered violence in the streets of Moscow. And in December 1994, Mr Yeltsin launched a war against separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya.

Last night, his death received a muted reaction after it was formally announced by the Kremlin. Mr Putin expressed his condolences by phone to Mr Yeltsin's widow, Naina.

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"He was the first Russian president. With this title he has forever entered the history of the country and the whole world," Mr Putin said at the Novo-Ogaryovo presidential residency outside Moscow.

"A man passed away, thanks to whom a whole new epoch was born," he added.

"New democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world. The state in which power truly belongs to the people."

Mr Yeltsin had kept a relatively low profile since his resignation on New Year's Eve, 1999, though he had been seen both at official public events and at major tennis championships.

His one-time mentor in the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was ousted from office by Mr Yeltsin in December 1991, last night offered his sympathy to Mr Yeltsin's family, but added the sting that on his "shoulders rest major events for the good of the country and serious mistakes. A tragic fate".

While many Russians saw their living standards plummet as a result of the "shock therapy", a small handful of people benefited most from the sudden shift from communism to a market economy.

Many of this elite evolved into the oligarchs who helped finance Mr Yeltsin's re-election campaign in 1996, thus providing him with overwhelming financial and media backing.

One of those oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky, now in exile in London and a key enemy of Mr Putin, praised him last night.

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"Russia has a lost a brilliant reformer. No-one has done as much for Russia as Yeltsin did. He was a unique person and absolutely Russian in his soul, in his impulsiveness and in his intellect," he said.

However, Chechen rebels described him as a "war criminal" for initiating the war in the Caucasus in 1994, which led to thousands of casualties on both sides.

In Britain, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, said he was saddened to hear of Mr Yeltsin's death.

"He was a remarkable man who saw the need for democratic and economic reform and in defending it played a vital role at a crucial time in Russia's history."

Highs and lows of his career

• BORIS Yeltsin's finest moment came in August 1991, as a clique of hardliners staged an abortive coup to halt President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms. Yeltsin climbed on to a tank outside government headquarters to rally the 150,000-strong crowd against the plotters.

In a grand symbolic gesture, Yeltsin called on Russians to resist the eight-man committee that had seized power and urged soldiers not to fire on their countrymen.

• IN December 1994, Yeltsin launched a war against separatists in the southern Muslim-dominated republic of Chechnya.

Tens of thousands of people were killed in the Chechnya conflict - some estimates put the toll as high as 100,000 - the city of Grozny was all but destroyed and a defeated and humiliated Russian army withdrew at the end of 1996. The war solved nothing - and Russian troops resumed fighting in the breakaway region in 1999.

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• IN PERHAPS his most celebrated incident, Boris Yeltsin failed to emerge from his plane for talks with Ireland's prime minister during a stopover at Shannon Airport in 1994, leaving his hosts stunned on the tarmac.

An aide said he was exhausted, not drunk, after a visit to the US. Fatigue was also used to explain a 1997 gaffe when Mr Yeltsin startled listeners in Sweden with a dramatic pledge to cut Russia's nuclear arsenal and seek a total world ban.

• TELEVISION cameras caught Yeltsin dancing on stage to rock music during his 1996 re-election bid. Later, it emerged he had suffered a heart attack days earlier.

He was also filmed at a 1995 meeting with foreign correspondents playfully tweaking the backside of a secretary.

Yeltsin would play on Russians' fondness for vodka, as in the run-up to the 1996 campaign, when he said: "Some say we should raise [vodka] prices. But I haven't the courage to do so yet."

• IN DECEMBER 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned. By January, Boris Yeltsin had begun to dismantle 75 years of Communist policies by lifting price controls on most goods, in a "mass-liberalisation" of Russia's state-controlled economy. His economic shock therapy caused massive hardship. Per-capita income fell 75 per cent and the population by more than two million. He also helped to create the wealthy oligarch class as the spoils of privatisation came up for grabs.