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CIS: Yeltsin Held 'Pride Of Place' In New Epoch

Yeltsin in 2006 (AFP) PRAGUE, April 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of former Soviet states have been remembering former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the man who presided over the final days of the USSR and escorted Russia into a rocky decade of economic and political reforms.

The former Russian president died of heart failure this afternoon in Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital, Kremlin officials said. He was 76 (read Yeltsin's obituary).

Yeltsin had long suffered from heart problems, and his death was not unexpected. But his unique position as the overseer of the final days of the Soviet Union left many officials today remembering a man who leaves a complicated legacy.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president who saw his power quickly give way to Yeltsin's in the last days of the USSR, said the two men had "serious differences."

Shevardnadze Remembers

In a condolence statement issued shortly after Yeltsin's death was announced, Gorbachev called the former president a man who was responsible for both "great deeds for the country and serious errors."

Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was a Yeltsin supporter and a fellow reformist leader in the early years of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the post-Soviet alliance Yeltsin helped to forge.

Shevardnadze today remembered Yeltsin in an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

"I had close relations with [Yeltsin] already when he was first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Oblast [Communist] Party Committee. He visited Georgia twice at that time and we have been friends ever since," Shevardnadze said.

"He later became [Russian] president and held other posts -- he has come a complicated way, he had disagreements with then-Soviet President [Mikhail Gorbachev], but, to put it in two words, Yeltsin played a big role in the building of democratic foundations in Russia."

Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Salikh also said that Yeltsin will be remembered as a leader who brought democratic values to the forefront.

"Boris Yeltsin was an outstanding personality who came to the political scene at the end of the Soviet Union," Salikh told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "Despite his mistakes as a Communist Party leader, compared to other leaders, he was relatively democratic. He will be remembered in history as a leader of perestroika and glasnost. If any democratic values remain in the former Soviet states, it's definitely to Yeltsin's credit."

'Motivated By Liberty And Democracy'

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, together with Yeltsin and Stanislau Shushkevich, the chairman of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet, signed the December 8, 1991, Belavezha Agreement forming the CIS.

In an interview today with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, he credited Yeltsin with Ukraine's 1991 independence and said as a leader he had been motivated by principles of "liberty" and "democracy."

Under Yeltsin's presidency, Russia went to war in Chechnya

"For me personally, this was a man of stature, who with his rough exterior was a person who really wanted for people to live in a democracy. For democracy in Russia, for its inception -- you have to know Russia to understand my words -- he did a huge amount. He dug the first furrow of free democratic development Russia after years of totalitarianism," Kravchuk said.

Kravchuk added that Yeltsin will retain a lasting place in history as the man who ushered in a new chapter in the history of the former Soviet republics.

"This was an entire epoch. Boris Nikolayevich, his life, his work is all part of the opening of a new age for Russia, for Ukraine and for all the countries of the former Soviet Union. This was a period of new life, new history, and Boris Nikolayevich has pride of place in this epoch," Kravchuk said.

Critical Leadership In Early Days Of Statehood

In Kyrgyzstan, where Yeltsin is admired for aiding the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, a university bears his name and there is a statue of him in the northern resort town of Cholponata.

Former Kyrgyz State Secretary Naken Kasiev told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that Yeltsin’s first trip abroad as president was to Kyrgyzstan.

Yeltsin "made his first ever [foreign] trip to Kyrgyzstan after he was elected president [of Russia in 1991]," Kasiev said. "Then I also witnessed him lead a delegation to the opening ceremony of the Kyrgyz Slavic University. He was respectful to Kyrgyzstan."

"He paid a lot of attention to the national aspirations of countries of the USSR conglomerate, and he was always very sensitive to these matters." Petru Lucinschi, former president of Moldova

Rafail Khakimov, an adviser to the president of Tatarstan, helped negotiate a power-sharing treaty between Kazan and Moscow under Yeltsin. He told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service that he believed Yeltsin had a vision for the future.

"He was a controversial person. On the one hand, he brought the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the other hand -- as Russia's first president -- he did a lot for democracy, federalism, liberty, (and) freedom of speech," Khakimov remembered. "He felt where the world was going and where Russia should go. As for Tatarstan, and we honor him for that, he signed a treaty with us. At that time everyone [in the Russian leadership] was against that treaty, but he signed it nevertheless."

Former Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi said Yeltsin provided critical leadership for nascent, ex-Soviet states.

"He played an essential role for young independent states like Moldova," Lucinschi told RFE/RL's Moldova-Romania Service. "He paid a lot of attention to the national aspirations of countries of the USSR conglomerate, and he was always very sensitive to these matters. He never put pressure, and the Istanbul issue of Russia's withdrawal [from Transdniester] was possible only because of him. He was the one who said, 'Yes, we have to support this idea.'"

Chaos And Uncertainty

Yeltsin's presidency, which lasted from 1991 to 1999, was marked by more than the collapse of communism and Soviet-era repressions. It also ushered in an uneasy decade during which market and political reforms gave way to rampant corruption, the creation of a Russian "oligarchy" of super-rich tycoons, and the first of Russia's two wars with Chechnya.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (left), Belarusian Supreme Soviet Speaker Stanislau Shushkevich (center), and Russian President Boris Yeltsin after signing the CIS agreement, December 8, 1991(Tass)

Yevgeny Yasin, who served as economy minister under Yeltsin, told RFE/RL that his legacy, though complicated, would improve with the passage of time.

"I think he was an outstanding person who took the most important decisions of the second half of the of the 20th century concerning Russia," Yasin said.

"These decisions will determine its future for a long time. I think he displayed the statesman's highest virtue -- the ability to take responsible decisions while sacrificing his reputation, his career."

Many Russians think of Yeltsin as the man who brought an era of chaos and uncertainty to the country. But Yasin says that, too, may change with time: "I think they will remember him negatively for a while, and then they will understand his role. Maybe historians of the next generation will give it [Yeltsin's role] the assessment it deserves."

For politicians who came of age in the heady early days of Yeltsin's presidency, the assessment is already glowing. Boris Nemtsov, a leading member of Russia's Union of Rightist Forces, was appointed by Yeltsin to serve as the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region in November 1991.

Nemtsov told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Yeltsin's role in the country's history cannot be overlooked.

"Personally, I'm very grateful to Yeltsin. He really gave me an opportunity to realize myself. It was hard to imagine that a young research worker could become governor of one of the most industrially advanced regions of the country," Nemtsov said.

"He was capable of trusting people, he was capable of bold actions, and I think his rebellious character was extremely important for dismantling communism and building a new Russia."

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian, Russian, Kyrgyz, Moldova-Romanian, Tatar-Bashkir, Uzbek, and Georgian services contributed to this report.)