Russia embraced democracy under Yeltsin's guidance

Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Russian President Boris Yeltsin danced at a rock concert in Rostov, Russia, in this June 1996 file photo. Yeltsin, who engineered the final collapse of the Soviet Union and pushed Russia to embrace democracy and a market economy, died Monday, a Kremlin official said. (Associated Press)

MOSCOW -- Former president Boris Yeltsin, who hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union by scrambling atop a tank to rally opposition against a hard-line coup and later pushed Russia to embrace democracy and a market economy, died Monday at age 76.

Russia's first freely elected leader, Yeltsin initially was admired Communist system. But many Russians will remember him mostly for presiding over the steep decline of their nation.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, summed up Yeltsin's complex legacy Monday by referring to him as one "on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Yeltsin "an important figure in Russian history."

"No Americans, at least, will forget seeing him standing on the tank outside the White House [the Russian parliament building] resisting the coup attempt," Gates said while visiting Moscow.

The Kremlin said the funeral would be Wednesday, a day of national mourning, and that Yeltsin would be buried at Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery, where many of Russia's most prominent figures are interred.

"Thanks to Boris Yeltsin's will and direct initiative, a new constitution was adopted which proclaimed human rights as the supreme value," said President Vladimir Putin, who was Yeltsin's handpicked successor. He said his former mentor "gave people a chance to freely express their thoughts, freely elect authorities."

Yeltsin rocketed to popularity in the Communist era on pledges to fight corruption, but he proved unable or unwilling to prevent the looting of state industry as it moved into private hands during his nine years in power.

His career was punctuated by bizarre behavior that the public chalked up to alcohol. Red-faced pranks, missed appointments, and inarticulate and contradictory public comments were blamed by aides on jet lag, medication or illness.

Yeltsin's greatest moments came in bursts.

After Communist hard-liners tried to overthrow Gorbachev and roll back democratic reforms in 1991 by sending armor into the streets, Yeltsin climbed atop a tank to rally resistance. He spearheaded the peaceful end of the Soviet state by the end of the year.

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