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Yeltsin leaves mixed legacy

Ex-president left ‘great deeds, serious errors,’ Gorbachev says

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Boris Yeltsin, the feisty, glowering ex-Communist leader whose dramatic feud with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev led to the collapse of the USSR and vaulted him into the presidency of a newly independent Russia, died on Monday, according to the Kremlin.

Minutes after the announcement, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev summed up the complicated legacy Yeltsin leaves for Russia, which has largely moved beyond the tumult and decline that marked his nine years in the Kremlin.

On Yeltsin's shoulders "are both great deeds for the country and serious errors," said Gorbachev, according to the news agency Interfax.

For many Russians, the proud and courageous Yeltsin who faced down hard-liners and ushered the USSR from history's stage never delivered on his pledges of a better post-Soviet life. The USSR's collapse was followed by hyperinflation, mass impoverishment, and the privatization of Russia's natural resources into the hands of a tiny elite of Kremlin insiders.

"The best thing Yeltsin did was to give us Vladimir Putin," says Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Markov, referring to Yeltsin's dramatic New Year's Eve resignation in 1999, which eased Putin into the job of acting president. "Otherwise the results of Yeltsin's years in power can be compared to the effects of a civil war," including economic collapse, demographic crisis, and implosion of Russia's prestige on the world stage, Markov says.

Others may be kinder to the huge, bear-like Siberian, born in the village of Butka in 1931, who went on to run his native region as Communist Party secretary during the 1970s. Many observers say he was an innovative leader, impatient with red tape and eager for improvement.

Brought to Moscow in 1985 by the new reformist leader Gorbachev, Yeltsin began to shake things up in the Communist Party's top council, the Politburo. After an angry showdown with Gorbachev over the slow pace of reform in 1987, Yeltsin was sacked and made head of a state construction committee. But he came roaring back from his banishment, and was overwhelmingly elected in 1989 to the new Congress of Peoples' Deputies, a semi-democratic parliament instituted by Gorbachev, and later as a member of Russia's Supreme Soviet legislature. In June 1991, he was elected as the first president of Russia, which was still a republic of the USSR.

In August of that year, when Communist hard-liners placed Gorbachev under house arrest and attempted to seize power, Yeltsin organized popular resistance, inspiring crowds from the top of a tank near Russia's parliament building. It was his finest moment.

Though Gorbachev was released when the coup collapsed, he never recovered his power, and by December Yeltsin signed away the USSR in a secret meeting with Ukrainian and Belarussian leaders.

In 1993, violent confrontation with the elected Supreme Soviet left hundreds dead, and led Yeltsin to rewrite Russia's Constitution to create a much stronger presidency.

War against the separatist republic of Chechnya led to up to 100,000 dead, mostly civilians, and Russian defeat in 1996.

Elections in 1996 saw a visibly unwell Yeltsin re-elected, amid allegations of voter manipulation and media corruption. The final years of Yeltsin's rule were marked by frequent absences due to ill-health, widespread allegations of inner-Kremlin corruption, and a catastrophic financial meltdown in 1998.

Since easing Putin into office seven years ago, Yeltsin — who is survived by his wife, Naina, and daughters Tatiana and Yelena — has kept a very low profile.

"Yeltsin gave our citizens freedom," said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, Monday. "He himself loved it, and he loved our homeland. Remember what he told Putin when he left: He said, 'Protect Russia.'"