Yeltsin is praised as freedom pioneer

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Boris Yeltsin -- 1931-2007

April 24, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Reporter

The speaker of the Russian State Duma, Boris Gryzlov, called former Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin a man "who did much to ensure the creation of our state" and "for the development of democracy in Russia."

The head of the nation's energy monopoly, Anatoly Chubais, praised his role in taking the nation from "non-freedom to freedom."

And the chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, called the nine years of Yeltsin's leadership "a breath of freedom for the country" and "his biggest achievement."

But it might have been Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, who best summed up, in death, the contradictions that characterized Yeltsin's life, leadership - and legacy.

"I offer my deepest condolences to the family of a man on whose shoulders rested many great deeds for the good of the country and serious mistakes - a tragic fate," Gorbachev was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Interfax.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin - who owes his political career to Yeltsin, the man who elevated him first from a virtual unknown to prime minister and later, in a dramatic New Year's Eve address in 1999, acting president - said: "A man passed away thanks to whom a whole new epoch was born. A new democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world, in which power truly belongs to the people."

But some in Russia questioned that sentiment - offered by the man who has tightened his grip on everything from the media to regional governments to civil society groups - and said that, with Yeltsin's passing, many of the values he stood for will, once and for all, pass away as well.

"Without Yeltsin," Andrei Kortunov, head of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow, said in an interview, "we would live in a different Russia, I am afraid less democratic. Now, when Yeltsin's epoch is gone, the values he believed in - liberal capitalism, Russia's active integration in international political and economic structures - will be called into question."

Yevgeny Kiselyov, a former editor at several now-defunct independent television stations, agreed that Yeltsin's death could "finally break the ropes that kept Russia at a democratic shore."

"I'm afraid that the `obligations' given by Putin to Yeltsin when the latter was alive will no longer have their value," he said.

At the same time, Yeltsin's contributions will perhaps be better appreciated now that he is gone, he said.

"Even though many people didn't like him when he was the president, they will feel sorry for him now," Kiselyov said. "It's a paradox, but that's the way it is."

News reports quoted Chubais, of Unified Energy Systems, as saying that Yeltsin accomplished "an absolutely impossible thing."

"He led us from non-freedom to freedom, from a country in which lies were a common, everyday and omnipresent occurrence from the general secretary of the [Communist Party] Central Committee to any assembly to a country which is trying to live according to the truth," he said.

In a statement, Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, which has lost much of its influence in the Putin era, described Yeltsin as a "personality of great political scale."

"He ruled the country during one of the hardest times in its history," Yavlinsky said. "It's important to remember that Yeltsin defeated his political opponents but never destroyed them. To Yeltsin's credit, revenge, the settling of personal scores and the physical elimination of political opponents did not become part of state policy in the '90s."

At least one politician had no kind words for Yeltsin.

The chief of the Russian Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, who pushed an unsuccessful move in parliament in the 1990s to have Yeltsin impeached, said he did not want to comment on Yeltsin's death because he had nothing good to say and didn't wish to speak badly of the dead.

Then, according to Interfax, he said: "There died a man whose deeds and political practice have proved to be a great woe for Russia and for millions of people."

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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