Strong personality and use of force often backfired
During his attack on Russia's parliament in 1993, Boris Yeltsin appeared on television to explain why he was using force against the country's democratically elected leaders.
Boris Yeltsin relied heavily on the force of his personality to overcome his opponents, but when that failed to persuade, he would not hesitate to use traditional force to coerce. At times, this strategy backfired.
Yeltsin gave his image a black eye by sending troops against hard-line lawmakers and other reform opponents who were barricaded inside Russia's parliament in 1993.
The armed response may have resolved the standoff, but it left dozens of people killed and appeared autocratic to some observers at home and abroad.
Yeltsin himself expressed regret that such a undemocratic move was, in his view, necessary to advance democracy.
"I'd rather not have a victory like this. Still, it had to be achieved, even at a terrible cost, in order to preserve at least the basis for stability in society, some hope for order," he wrote in "The Struggle for Russia."
The Russian people seemed to understand the irony, or at least they preferred Yeltsin's version of events. Two months later, they approved the new constitution and voted in a new legislature.
But they threw in yet another challenge: The new parliament came with a contingent of ultranationalist lawmakers, headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The appeal of right-wing views was attributed by observers to elements impossible for Yeltsin to fix quickly: the country's sharp economic pains and its decline in international standing.
Yeltsin drew criticism at home and abroad by sending troops in 1994 against Chechnya, a breakaway republic. The conflict bogged down into a two-year quagmire that drained his popularity before it ended with a cease-fire and a delayed resolution.
He later admitted the decision to fight for Chechnya was probably wrong. "It might have been a mistake, but I couldn't tolerate the disintegration of Russia," Yeltsin said in June 1996.
A man of contradictions
Chechnya was one of many apparent contradictions that dogged his record: The man who prevailed over the disintegration of the Soviet Union balked at extending the idea to Russia itself.
A tank fires at the Russian parliament building during Yeltsin's 1993 move against hard-line Communists who were barricaded inside.
Contradiction marked even his core cause. While he pushed for democracy, he also demanded -- and used -- strong central presidential powers. Despite his ability to work crowds, Yeltsin often acted without regard for popular opinion.
He believed the merit of reform spoke for itself, and he pushed for it with a confidence that sometimes alienated those whose help he needed to achieve it. Again and again, lawmakers resisted the strong powers and strident policies he asked for, trying to temper his headlong pace of "shock therapy" economic reform that left millions reeling.
In late 1992, they withheld the emergency powers he sought until he agreed to replace the radical reformer Yegor Gaidar with the more conservative Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister.
Yeltsin's uneven courtship of the public mood could be blamed in part for the influx of ultranationalist lawmakers in the 1993 elections, and of Communists in 1995.
He roused himself to campaign in earnest just in time to avoid losing the 1996 presidential elections.
Yeltsin prevailed despite such contradictions through an uncanny ability to stay ahead of his critics, appearing to compromise while still getting his way.
In 1997, for example, a scandal nearly brought down his chief economic adviser and reform visionary, Anatoly Chubais, who received an unusually large book advance from a publisher that had benefited from Chubais' reforms.
Yeltsin drew criticism at home and abroad by sending troops in 1994 against Chechnya, a breakaway republic.
Lawmakers threatened to hold the 1998 budget hostage until he was fired for the apparent conflict of interest, but Yeltsin still needed him. Chubais was dropped as finance minister but kept as first deputy prime minister.
During the Russian economic crisis that reached a climax in August 1998, Yeltsin's political opponents tried to blame him for the nation's troubles. Instead, within a year, Yeltsin was successful in shifting blame for the crisis to his prime minister, whom Yeltsin had chosen as a compromise candidate acceptable to conservatives in parliament.
When calls came for Yeltsin to resign, he refused and instead said he would not run for re-election in 2000. Yeltsin then replaced his prime minister with a handpicked prodigy, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin.
Soon afterward, in a deft political move, Yeltsin staged a dramatic New Year's Eve 1999 resignation speech and announced that Putin would take his place, giving Putin a golden opportunity to use the presidency as a lever for his presidential campaign.
During his retirement, Yeltsin avoided the threat of prosecution for alleged corruption, insider dealing and other irregularities by winning immunity granted by Putin and Russia's parliament.
Health held him back
Yeltsin's unstable health, including heart bypass surgery in 1996, was a recurring political liability.
But Yeltsin's unstable health was a recurring political liability, if only because it gave his opponents room to maneuver as he disappeared periodically from public view.
For years, he was suspected of heavy drinking. He suffered two heart attacks in 1995, then had a heart bypass operation in November 1996 and promptly got pneumonia.
Since September 1991, Yeltsin suffered from at least 14 separate health-related incidents, including heart attacks, pneumonia, heart surgery, ulcer treatment, flu, bronchitis, "unstable blood pressure and fatigue" and "acute viral infection."
Russia's first democratically elected president was more candid than his Soviet predecessors about his illnesses, and he acted decisively to squelch suggestions he wasn't up to the job.
But Yeltsin's singular importance to the government, created by his own demand for strong central powers, and lingering doubts about the government's candor concerning his health compounded his country's instability.
It could be argued that through the years, no one could be harder on Yeltsin than Yeltsin himself. "Mistakes there were, and I am grateful for them; they spurred me on, made me work with twice, three times my usual energy," Yeltsin wrote in 1990 in "Against the Grain."
"When analyzing situations and events, I ignore whatever went well and concentrate on my shortcomings and errors," Yeltsin wrote. "It accounts for my feeling of permanent dissatisfaction with myself, a dissatisfaction with 90 percent of what I do."