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by Julio Godoy

Yeltsin Left With Few Allies (1999)

(IPS) -- A liberal reformer. A defiant leader. A drunken clown. A war criminal. A variety of epithets follow Boris Yeltsin, a former Russian president who passed away April 23 of a heart attack at age 76.

A single classic photograph of Yeltsin elicits different responses.

Imagine that enduring image of him on top of a tank, arms up in defiance, leading popular resistance against the putsch organized by the old Soviet military. Some see it as glorious, but others see it and think of the military muscle Yeltsin used against Chechnya, where his scorched-earth policy shattered a republic and left hundreds of thousands tortured, killed or displaced.

The photograph was taken in August 1991 when a clique of hardliners tried to abort then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms. The actual image tuned out to be historic -- it was a picture of the end of the Soviet Union and the creation of democracy of sorts in Russia.

Different faces of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin will be remembered for a long time. Some will praise Yeltsin for freeing his own country and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. He was the leader who ended the Cold War. Others will damn him for looking at the same issue from the other side -- they will condemn him for breaking up the Soviet Union.

And many will remember also his erratic rule, which allowed rampant corruption and criminality.

The almost childlike triumph in that picture is a reminder of yet another face of Yeltsin -- his drunken antics.

In Western Europe and North America, Yeltsin is being acclaimed as the liberal reformer, the founding father of Russian democracy.

"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," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a statement.

Yeltsin, who ruled Russia from 1991 to 1999, did indeed introduce Russia to some formal, elementary notions of democracy such as relatively free speech, right to private property and multi-party elections. He also opened the country's borders to trade, travel and foreign investment.

But his economic and social policies, based on a chemically pure application of neo-liberal thought, brought about the collapse of the Russian economy in the mid-1990s, leading to a collapse of living standards for the majority of the population. Per capita income fell 75 percent by the end of 1998.

As the country descended into social and financial chaos, best epitomized by the crisis of 1998, a handful of oligarchs close to Yeltsin became extraordinarily rich. Not surprisingly, they think Yeltsin a hero.

Boris Berezovsky, who became a billionaire during the 1990s, called Yeltsin 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," Berezovsky said Monday evening.

But for human rights activists, Yeltsin was a war criminal for the ruthlessness he showed in Chechnya.

In December 1994, he launched a bloody war against Muslim separatists in the Northern Caucasus republic. His policy led to the killing of thousands and forced others to flee. The republic's capital Grozny was all but destroyed. But the rebels still defeated and humiliated the Russian army, which withdrew at the end of 1996.

Yeltsin again sent Russian troops to the breakaway region in 1999. The conflict there has still not been resolved.

Perhaps former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev summed it best when he spoke of Yeltsin as "a tragic destiny." Yeltsin had "major deeds for the good as well as serious mistakes behind him," Gorbachev said.

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born Feb. 1, 1931, to a peasant family in Butka, a village in the Ural mountains. After graduating as an engineer, and working for construction firms in his region, he became a member of the Communist Party and advanced rapidly through its structures.

In 1975, Yeltsin, then 44, was named party general secretary in Sverdlovsk, a city dominated by the military industry. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the city was renamed Yekaterinburg.

By the mid-1980s, Yeltsin had become known at the party's national level for his streetwise leadership, in sharp contrast to the dull bureaucrats who were dragging the party into oblivion.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, the recently elected general secretary of the Soviet Union's Communist Party, summoned Yeltsin to Moscow and appointed him member of the Politburo. Gorbachev charged Yeltsin with the seemingly impossible task of reviving the moribund party, and fighting corruption within it.

Yeltsin's style and reforming zeal enraged the old guard, who opposed him fiercely. By 1988 Yeltsin had left the Politburo, and within two years, the Communist Party. But the clash with the old guard boosted Yeltsin's popularity, and helped him emerge as new national leader during the crisis of 1991.

A group of Communist and military hardliners tried to remove Gorbachev from power Aug. 18, 1991. That was when Yeltsin stood up on a military tank in front of the White House, residence of the Supreme Soviet, and incited the people to resistance.

Gorbachev was detained in Crimea, but Yeltsin's memorable speech from the tank's turret set off demonstrations against the coup leaders, and provoked the defection of troops surrounding the White House. By Aug. 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow.

Within months, Yeltsin oversaw the end of the Soviet Union. That became official Dec. 24 of that year when the Russian Federation took over the United Nations seat formerly occupied by the Communist regime from Moscow.

The following day, Gorbachev resigned in protest, and the Soviet Union was history.

By the end of his mandate in 1999, Yeltsin was deeply unpopular, mostly due to his erratic economic policies that brought him approval ratings as low as 2 percent by some estimates.

Before his resignation that year, he was instrumental in preparing the ascension to power of current Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy.

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Albion Monitor   April 24, 2007   (

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