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Who was Mr. Yeltsin?

February 01, 2016, 16:48 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara
© Alexander Sentsov/ITAR-TASS

MOSCOW, February 1. /TASS/. Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, who would have turned 85 today, still evokes conflicting comments as if those sharing their opinion of the man were talking about two different personalities.

"He was a greater reformer. He shifted the Russian economy onto the market economy track with just one mighty effort," say some. "He was a terminator. In 1991 he put his signature to the Belovezh Agreement that ruined the Soviet Union," respond his critics. "He was a democrat. He guaranteed free elections to the country’s people." "He was a dictator, he disbanded parliament by decree in 1993 and then sent tanks to shell the building." "He was a statist, he prevented the country from falling apart." "He was an irresponsible politician who was to blame for the loss of thousands of Russian soldiers in Chechnya…"

Too little time has passed since Boris Yeltsin’s decision to cut short his second term of office to pass judgements on his legacy. Yeltsin declared his voluntary resignation on December 31, 1999. In an address to the nation telecast at noon on the last day of the outgoing year he said he had no intention of clinging on to power for another six months. Yeltsin asked his fellow citizens to forgive him "for failing to rise to some expectations of the people who had believed that in one leap we will jump out of the grey, stagnant and totalitarian past into a bright, rich and civilized future."

Since Vladimir Putin took over as Russia’s president in 2000, dual attitude to Yeltsin’s personality has remained and even kept growing stronger. In the official public space the term "turbulent 1990s" has firmly established itself. The term graphically denotes the years of Yeltsin’s rule (1991-1999), with their unfair (in the opinion of the disadvantaged) privatization of public assets, corruption and crime. At the same time, in November last year the city of Yekaterinburg, Yeltsin’s hometown, saw a special ceremony of unveiling Russia’s first Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre. President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended the event. In his opening speech Putin said it was essential to preserve a considerate attitude to Russia’s centuries-old history, a history of dramatic turns, mistakes and victories.

Yeltsin’s associates, who once worked with him side by side in the Kremlin and in the government, refer to him as the captain who turned the ship called Russia away from the Soviet-era economy, managed by decree, to a free market system.

"Whole generations of Soviet people were sick and tired of shortages. When my health started failing me in the late 1980s, I was unable to buy the medications I needed. People had to queue for hours to buy essentials. When in January 1992 Yeltsin signed a decree on free trade, he put an end to this outrage. He is an outstanding reformer of the Russian economy and this achievement will do him credit forever," the science doyen of the Higher School of Economics, Yevgeny Yasin (Russia’s economics minister under Yeltsin) has told TASS.

Professor Mikhail Krasnov, of the Higher School of Economics, who at a certain point was Yeltsin’s legal adviser, sees the first Russian president as a historical figure, because at the turn of epochs he managed to stand firm as a personality and as a leader.

"I’m writing a book about the institution of the presidency in Russia. As I delved through the 1990s, I came to the conclusion that Yeltsin was devoid of outspoken lust for power and that in many cases he is blamed unfairly. Whatever his mistakes and weaknesses, he does not deserve a strongly negative attitude. No ruler is perfect," Krasnov told TASS.

A balance of opinions regarding Yeltsin would be incomplete without criticism. Doctor of Military Science Konstantin Sivkov holds Yeltsin responsible for multiple breeches of his oaths, including military oath. "When Yeltsin joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he vowed to remain a devout Communist. In 1991 he outlawed the Communist Party in Russia. He had taken his military oath to the Soviet Union, but he was the one who abolished the country. As the president he had promised to be the safeguard of the Constitution, but he was the one who signed an anti-constitutional law to disband parliament," Sivkov told TASS.

The public mind’s attitude to the Yeltsin legacy is to a certain extent reflected in the Levada opinion poll, timed for the 85th anniversary of his birth. Fourteen percent share a positive vision of Russia’s first president, while 36% have a negative attitude to him. The others remained undecided.

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