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Boris Yeltsin 1931~2007

Maverick shaped history with bravado

Boris Yeltsin ran a victorious presidential campaign in Russia's first free election in June 1991.

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(CNN) -- Boris Yeltsin, as Russia's first freely elected president, governed his nation through its turbulent transition to democracy without any direct precedent.

It was his stubborn independence coupled with a gift for political improvisation that saw him -- and his country -- through the constant crises of its historic changes.

The results were mixed. Yeltsin, as his country's central driving force for reform, pushed against all resistance for free elections and free markets.

At the same time, he displayed an autocratic streak, pushing for a strong central authority vested in him. He justified his actions as necessary to secure reform in an unstable and insecure society.

"I think he's using his fists to push things ahead in Russia," former presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov said in July 1997.

Yeltsin himself marveled at his own ability to land on his feet, again and again.

"It always seems as if someone is rescuing me. ... It can't be that so much could crash on the head of just one person at every stage in his life," Yeltsin wrote in "The Struggle for Russia."

"Am I afraid of death? I don't know why, but for some reason I'm not, no matter how much you bang me around."

Reluctant to compromise

It was always that way, and always his way. Yeltsin always seemed to know how to exercise power, and he routinely ignored the cautious route.

In January 1992, days after the Soviet Union officially folded, he wiped out state subsidies on all but basic goods. Months later, with the economy already reeling, he privatized numerous industries.

Supporters greet Yeltsin during his re-election campaign for Russian president in 1996.  

He was forced to compromise the pace of reform only when lawmakers threatened no-confidence votes and tried to curtail the broad authority he demanded. But he characteristically emerged from these scrapes winning and grinning.

In February 1993, the Congress of People's Deputies demanded a more equitable balance of power and refused to renew his power to rule by emergency decree. But he promised a constitutional referendum and got his way.

His draft for the constitution, with strong presidential authority and a weaker bicameral legislature, prevailed over an opposing version, which would have reversed the balance.

In an indication of Yeltsin's progress, less than two years after the Soviet Union's collapse, there was no debate on the economic framework: Both draft versions guaranteed property rights for the first time in Russian history.

Getting a new constitution was in his as well as the country's interest, as it would allow him to call elections for a new and potentially less-resistant legislature.

Even another comeback

The struggles were unending for this leader who seemed to thrive on challenges. In 1995, voters further clouded reform's future by returning a block of Communist lawmakers. By 1996, Yeltsin's prospects for re-election looked bleak.

Again, Yeltsin surprised his critics and came from behind to win by appealing to the people. He crisscrossed the country campaigning like a Western candidate, making splashy media appearances.

Yeltsin finished first among 10 candidates in June 1996. In a bold, pragmatic move, he teamed up with third-place finisher Gen. Alexander Lebed to hold off Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in a runoff.

The election itself was a victory for the reforms Yeltsin championed as monitors pronounced it fair and democratic. Even former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was allowed on the ballot.

Yeltsin, responding to public opinion, directed Lebed to negotiate an end to the Chechnyan conflict that staved off independence demands for a few years. But when Lebed became too openly ambitious, Yeltsin dumped him from his Cabinet.

Western leaders such as U.S. President Bill Clinton, here with Yeltsin at a 1997 G-8 meeting, recognized and backed the Russian leader as the region's remaining unifying force.  

Trying to win over the world

Throughout his presidency, Yeltsin also sought international mandates for his agenda. Despite the instability of his country and his own leadership, he pressured the West for financial aid and diplomatic parity and managed to restore some of Russia's global clout.

From the start, he pestered the so-called Group of Seven leading industrialized nations for recognition, showing up, hat in hand at their annual meetings.

It paid off. They granted billions of dollars in assistance over the years. And in 1997, in a nod to the relative stabilization of Russia's economy, the group renamed itself the G-8 as it admitted Russia to the fold.

The same year, Yeltsin worked through negotiations with NATO that defined a special relationship with Russia, even as he registered objections to the alliance's expansion into Eastern Europe.

On the nuclear front, Yeltsin was instrumental in shifting the tone of debate with the West to embrace disarmament. In 1993, he signed the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty, although the Russian parliament left it unratified until April 2000 after Yeltsin had left office.

A self-engineered exit

Yeltsin's desire to control his own destiny extended all the way to the end of his political career. Facing economic, health and international challenges, again and again, Yeltsin refused to back down.

In August 1998, opposition demands for Yeltsin's resignation reached new heights. The president was being blamed for an economic crisis of frightening proportions. The international value of the nation's currency, the ruble, dropped to levels so alarming that Russia's Central Bank halted dollar sales. The move was an effort to protect Russia's hard currency reserves.

Despite the crisis, Yeltsin appeared on national television August 28, 1998, and refused to step down, promising that he would not run for re-election in 2000.

Yeltsin also fought successfully against suggestions from opposition leaders in January 1999 that his health was endangering the presidency and he should resign.

Yeltsin was hospitalized, the Kremlin said, for treatment of an ulcer. He had already undergone heart bypass surgery in 1996.

When U.S.-led NATO airstrikes began against Yugoslavia, Yeltsin continually denounced the campaign, repeatedly calling for an end to the bombing, which lasted from March 24 to June 10, 1999.

On May 12, 1999, Yeltsin refused to yield to an impeachment attempt by the Communist-led State Duma. Impeachment charges seemed to sum up Yeltsin's entire political career.

He was charged with instigating the 1991 Soviet Union collapse, improperly using force against hard-line lawmakers in 1993, launching the mired 1994-96 war in Chechnya, ruining the nation's military and waging genocide against the Russian people by pursuing economic policies that impoverished the country.

Instead of backing down, Yeltsin, on the eve of impeachment hearings, fired Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, blaming him for the nation's economic troubles.

It was also during this period that Yeltsin was dogged by widespread allegations -- which were never proved -- of corruption, insider dealing and other irregularities.

Finally, Yeltsin capped off his historic career with a typical surprise as a century dominated by U.S.-Soviet tensions was coming to a close.

On December 31, 1999, just six months before scheduled elections for president, Yeltsin announced his immediate resignation and declared Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his successor. The popular Putin, a former KGB agent, was handpicked by Yeltsin to assume the prime ministership the previous August.

"We who have been in power for many years must go," Yeltsin said in a television address.

"I want to beg your forgiveness for your dreams that never came true," Yeltsin said. "I would like to beg forgiveness not to have justified your hopes."

On New Year's Eve 1999, Yeltsin shocked the world with his sudden resignation.  

A winner even in retirement

During his retirement, Yeltsin published a third volume of memoirs and met with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on a book tour to Germany.

But otherwise, the man who dominated Russia for a decade remained largely out of the public eye.

While hospitalized for what aides said was an "acute viral infection" in January 2001, Russia's parliament voted to grant the former president immunity from all prosecution for any and all crimes.

Despite a career peppered with allegations of corruption, battles with poor health and struggles with powerful political adversaries, Yeltsin will be seen favorably by future generations, historians say.

"It's very hard to see any other figure within Russian politics who could have turned history in the direction it has gone," historian Michael Beschloss has observed.

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