Obituary: Boris Yeltsin

Yeltsin became Russia’s first democratically elected president.

Yeltsin's 1991 call to fight a coup attempt made him extremely popular [AP]

Born on February 1, 1931, in Yekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk) in Russia, Yeltsin joined the Communist Party in 1961 during the anti-Stalinist political changes begun by Nikita Khrushchev, the ex-premier.


Fight against corruption


Yeltsin became first chairman of the Sverdlovsk party committee in 1976 and met Mikhail Gorbachev, who held the same position in Stavropol.


When Gorbachev took power in 1985, he chose Yeltsin to fight corruption within the Moscow party hierarchy.


Yeltsin became unhappy with the pace of change and after challenging party conservatives and even Gorbachev himself, he resigned from the party leadership in 1987 and the Politburo in 1988.


However, Yeltsin remained popular with the people of Moscow.


Demonstrations, a new phenomenon in the Soviet Union, erupted in support of him.


Finest moment


During the August 1991 coup by Russian communists opposed to Gorbachev, Yeltsin led resistance to the coup, rallying his followers from atop a tank outside the Kremlin.


Gorbachev took power in 1985 and chose Yeltsin
to reform corruption within their party [AP]

When the coup failed after a few days of resistance, Gorbachev, detained at his country house in Crimea, returned to Moscow, but power had shifted to Yeltsin, who had already begun negotiating with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus for an arrangement to replace the Soviet Union.


In June 1991, Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, the first popularly elected leader in Russia.


Three years into his presidency, Yeltsin launched a war against separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya in which tens of thousands of people died.


The Russian army withdrew at the end of 1996, defeated and humiliated, but Russian troops resumed fighting in the breakaway region in the autumn of 1999.


Yeltsin comeback


Faced with a stagnating economy, a hostile legislature, an attempted coup and a military debacle in Chechnya, Yeltsin’s prospects seemed bleak in 1996 elections.


In his own words

“Let’s not talk about communism. Communism was just an idea, just pie in the sky.” – On a visit to the US in 1989

“[The war] may have been one of my mistakes.” – On the Chechen war he started in 1994.

“It just happened … what can one do?” – Explaining that he had failed to meet the Irish PM in 1994 because he had overslept.

“A man must live like a great bright flame and burn as brightly as he can. In the end he burns out. But that is better than a mean little flame.” – Talking to a Times newspaper reporter in 1990.

“Some say that vodka is too cheap now and we should raise prices. But I haven’t the courage to do so yet.” – ahead of his 1996 re-election

But he staged another comeback, defeating Gennady Zyuganov, a communist challenger, in a July election.


In November 1996, Yeltsin underwent heart bypass surgery and was confined to the hospital for months. His health problems were to become a concern throughout the rest of his presidency.


He became increasingly unpopular in his second term, tainted by allegations of corruption in a Russia facing turmoil as it moved to a capitalist political system.


The Russian economy sank into a deep recession in the summer of 1998, but Yeltsin rarely commented on the troubles and never offered a plan to combat them.


In a television broadcast on December 31, 1999, Yeltsin asked the Russian people for their forgiveness and apologised for his mistakes in a resignation speech that surprised the world’s media and concluded his eight years as Russia‘s president.




Yeltsin introduced Western-style democracy, multi-party elections and opened the borders to trade and travel.


Many of Yeltsin’s outbursts were blamed
on excessive drinking [AP]

He also pushed through free-market changes, privatising state-owned industries and allowing foreign investment.


In foreign policy, he assured independence for Russia‘s Soviet-era satellites, oversaw troop and arms reductions, and developed warm relations with Western leaders.


However, he was hesitant to act against crime and corruption in the new Russia. Corruption in the Kremlin sapped public faith and stunted democracy.


His “shock therapy” policies impoverished millions of Russians, as people failed to receive their wages and pensions from his government during the transition.


Power games


In the course of the Yeltsin era, per capita income fell by about 75 per cent, and the nation’s population fell by more than two million, due largely to the steep decline in public health.


Yeltsin played top advisers off against each other, and never let any of them accumulate much power for fear that they would challenge him.


He was quick to act if anyone threatened his hold on power, standing fast even when his traditional allies called on him to step down.


He fired the entire government four times in 1998 and 1999 and faced down an impeachment attempt by the Communist-dominated lower chamber of parliament in May 1999.


In foreign affairs, he struggled to preserve a role for his former superpower.


He called for a “multipolar world” as a way to counterbalance what Russia perceived as excessive US global clout, and in spring 1999 he sent Russian troops into Kosovo, ahead of Nato peacekeepers, to underline that Moscow would not be elbowed out of European affairs.


Absent leader 


In the final years of his leadership, Yeltsin was dogged by health problems and often seemed out of touch, allegedly due to excessive drinking.


He retreated regularly to his country residence outside Moscow and stayed away from the Kremlin for days, even weeks at a time.


As the country lurched from crisis to crisis, its leader appeared increasingly absent.


Yeltsin will be remembered as Russia‘s first democratically elected president, but also for his haphazard outbursts, inability to combat political corruption and the mismanagement of Russia‘s transition to a capitalist economy.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies