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Russia: Legacy Unclear As Russia's First President Turns 75

Yeltsin in Moscow last year (ITAR-TASS) Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, turns 75 today. Born into a peasant family in a Urals village in 1931, Yeltsin went on to become a key figure during the turbulent times that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. His presidency witnessed two coup attempts, two wars in Chechnya, and Russia's difficult postcommunist economic transition. He resigned on New Year's Eve in 1999, appointing Vladimir Putin his acting successor. Today, as Russia considers the legacy of his leadership, Yeltsin lives out his retirement at his state dacha near Moscow.

PRAGUE, 1 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Of all the images that Boris Yeltsin's career conjures up, his address from atop a tank to the crowd outside the Russian White House during the August 1991 coup attempt might be the most memorable.

Yeltsin's actions led to a wave of popularity that served him well during the tumultuous years that followed. He had only recently won the first democratic presidential elections in the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR), which had declared its sovereignty from the Soviet Union a year earlier.

He addressed his supporters in Moscow in the days following the failed coup.

"The people have already rid themselves of the fear they had several years ago," Yeltsin said. "I call on my compatriots to begin constructive work in order to revive and renew Russia in the name of national unity."

Rocky Presidency

His presidency would survive an impeachment attempt in 1993 and a subsequent coup attempt the same year. As president, he guided Russia as it made the difficult transition to democracy and a market economy.

His leadership certainly did not come without its detractors, but as President Vladimir Putin said yesterday, there is no doubting the impact Yeltsin had on his country.
Yeltsin was a respected engineer and a professional volleyball player in his native Sverdlovsk Oblast before joining the Communist Party at the age of 30.

"You can describe that period any way you like, and you can assess the work of the first president of the Russian Federation any way you like," Putin said. "But one thing is beyond any doubt: it was precisely during that period, when Boris Yeltsin was in charge of Russia, that the people of our country, the citizens of Russia, gained the main thing for the sake of which all these transformations were taking place -- freedom. And this is Boris Yeltsin's enormous historic contribution."

Others do not view Yeltsin's presidency with such fondness. Aside from the economic and political turmoil associated with Yeltsin's time in office, many Russians endured severe impoverishment. A survey of 1,600 people published last month by the Yuri Levada Center showed that 70 percent of Russians believe the Yeltsin era brought the country more harm than good.

Surprise Announcement

On 31 December 1999, Yeltsin stunned the nation by announcing his immediate resignation during a televised New Year's address.

"Today I am addressing you for the last time as Russian president," Yeltsin said. "I have made a decision. I have contemplated this long and hard. Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I am retiring."
Upon moving to Moscow in 1985, Yeltsin rose quickly through the ranks -- going from a city construction official, to first secretary of Moscow's Communist Party Committee, to a member of the Politburo.

Earlier this week, Yeltsin defended his decision in an interview with the Russian weekly "Itogi." He said that in choosing Putin as his successor, "I tried to find a man whose fundamental values are freedom, the market, and progress together with civilized states. I thought it was important for him to have a strong will.... Russians felt his strength and elected Putin president."

Tough Comparison

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says that while Putin was chosen by Yeltsin, his presidency does not mirror that of his predecessor.

Yeltsin and his wife, Naina, in 1954

"Yeltsin instinctively was more inclined to democracy, if not toward democracy then at least to public policy," Petrov said. "He was a politician. He was a person who came to power himself using political means. In this sense, Putin is a completely different. He is a technocrat; he represents a completely different school of thought -- a corporative one. On the contrary he doesn't like public policy and he likes a tough, kind of half military obedience. Many projects he presents look like special operations."
Yeltsin was kicked out of the Politburo after delivering a scathing criticism of top Party leaders before a plenary meeting of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee in 1987.

Petrov says many of the measures Putin receives credit for implementing were in discussion during the last years of Yeltsin's rule. In addition, according to Petrov, Putin benefited from a much more favorable situation upon taking office.

"It is a little bit difficult to compare Yeltsin and Putin's time because in one case the state was very weak, which did not have money and that's why it was losing all its positions," Petrov said. "Democracy and federalism were attributes of a weak state."

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