Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Yeltsin leaves a mixed legacy

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, the man who defeated decades of communism and became first democratically elected president of Russia in the post-Soviet era, is dead at the age of 76.

Commentators in the Russian media are assessing the controversial career and political legacy of the larger-than-life Yeltsin who served as president from 1991 to 1999.

The image of Yeltsin standing on a tank outside the Russian Parliament in defiance of communist hard-core loyalists is etched in the collective conscience of the Russian people.

While world leaders are hailing Yeltsin as a courageous leader whose unwavering determination brought democracy to Russia, many Russians blame him for the hardships unleashed by free market reforms.

Yeltsin's new capitalism got rid of massive subsisidies while the free market reforms allowed unrestriced prices to be set by private parties, plunging millions into poverty overnight.

Introducing capitalistic free market into a communist culture was a daunting challenge for Yeltsin who became more unpopular in his later years.

Yeltsin's health deteriorated from the excess of heavy drinking which became the subject of many jokes, creating an unfavourable image at home and abroad.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, summed up the complexity of Yeltsin's legacy in a condolence statement minutes after the death was announced. He referred to Yeltsin as one "on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors," according to the news agency Interfax.

To his credit, Yeltsin carried his country through a turbulent transformation with far less bloodshed than many had feared, and the new Russia is his legacy.

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