Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who buried the Soviet Union and then led Russia through its chaotic first years of independence, died on Monday aged 76, the Kremlin said.
Many Russians initially viewed Yeltsin as a hero for dismantling Communist rule. His finest hour came when, in 1991, he clambered on to a tank and raised his fist in defiance of hard-line coup plotters who wanted to turn back the clock.
But his economic ”shock therapy” cast millions into poverty and his last years in office were marked by chaos, erratic behaviour combined with persistent reports of drunkenness, and bloody conflict with Chechen rebels.
”Today, at [3.45pm local time] Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin died in the Central Clinical Hospital as a result of a deteriorating cardio-vascular problem,” said a Kremlin spokesperson.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, whom Yeltsin effectively forced from office, paid tribute to his achievements, and noted his shortcomings.
”I express the very deepest condolences to the family of the deceased, on whose shoulders rest major events for the good of the country, and serious mistakes,” Gorbachev said.
”A tragic fate,” said Gorbachev, who had bitter relations with Yeltsin in his lifetime.
President Vladimir Putin, whom Yeltsin anointed as his heir before stepping down in the last hours of 1999, telephoned his widow and expressed his ”deepest condolences”, the Kremlin said.
The chaos he inherited from Yeltsin created a widespread disillusionment with democracy that later allowed Putin, backed by most Russians, to roll back many of Yeltsin’s reforms.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed former Yeltsin, who died Monday, as a ”remarkable” man who had played a vital role at a crucial time in his country’s history.
”It is with sadness that I learned of the death of former president Yeltsin,” Blair said in a statement issued by his office.
”He was a remarkable man who saw the need for democracy and economic reform and in defending that reform he played a vital role at a crucial time in Russia’s history.”
Yeltsin had for years been dogged by heart problems that required multiple heart bypass surgery while he was still in office. His deteriorating health ultimately forced him to step aside in favour of Putin.
United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in Moscow for talks with Putin, said Yeltsin was an important figure.
”No Americans at least will forget seeing him standing on the tank outside of the White House resisting a coup attempt.”
South African President Thabo Mbeki paid tribute to Yeltsin on Monday, saying he had been a friend of South Africa who had tried to strengthen ties between the two countries.
”The late president Yeltsin was indeed a friend of South Africa in his endeavours to consolidate and strengthen political, cultural and people-to-people relations between the Russian Federation and South Africa,” he said in a statement issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
”The government and people of South Africa join the international community in sharing its thoughts and prayers with the family of the late president Yeltsin, the government and people of the Russian Federation during this period of national mourning.”
Yeltsin ruled Russia from 1991 to the last day of 1999, when he handed over power to Putin. He had the distinction of becoming the first Russian leader to step down voluntarily.
Many of Yeltsin’s contemporaries in the democracy movement alleged Putin had betrayed Yeltsin’s legacy by dismantling democracy, but once in retirement he never returned to public politics.
Born into a poor peasant family in an industrial region in the Ural Mountains, Yeltsin lived with his family in one room of a wooden hut.
He studied civil engineering and rose to become a successful construction manager before switching to work for the local Communist party.
Gorbachev, looking for thrusting managers to re-invigorate Soviet rule, summoned him to Moscow to become the capital’s party chief.
He was sacked for his maverick style but in 1989 he was elected to the new Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies and in June 1991 he was elected president of Russia — still within the Soviet Union — in a landslide.
Two months later, he faced down tanks in the Moscow streets, and six months after that, he signed a treaty with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus abolishing the Soviet Union altogether. Yeltsin, triumphant, became president of a sovereign Russia. — Reuters, Sapa, AFP