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IN THE NEWS - Yeltsin Remembered: Russia's First Freely Elected Leader, but With a Mixed Record

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This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

This week, Russia buried its former president with full honors in Moscow. Boris Yeltsin died Monday at age seventy-six. He served from nineteen ninety-one to nineteen ninety-nine. He will always be remembered as Russia's first democratically elected leader. But his record is seen as a mix of good and bad for the country.

The coffin of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin during a Farewell ceremony in Moscow
The coffin of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin during a Farewell ceremony in Moscow

Boris Yeltsin rose within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But in nineteen eighty-seven he rebelled against the Soviet system. He called for more reform. Within a month, he was dismissed as party chief in Moscow.

He became a leader of Russia's political opposition. In nineteen eighty-nine, he was elected to the Soviet parliament. Two years later he was elected president of the Russian republic -- at that time, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic. Mikhail Gorbachev was president of the Soviet Union.

That same year, nineteen ninety-one, a group of plotters from the military, Communist

Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev
Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev

Party and KGB secret police tried to seize power. Leaders of the attempted overthrow detained Mister Gorbachev. But Mister Yeltsin climbed onto an army tank in Moscow to urge people to resist. The coup attempt failed.

Four months later, in December, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union collapsed.

Yet in the years that followed Boris Yeltsin's heroic moment, his popularity fell. In October of nineteen ninety-three, he ordered the army to shell the parliament building to end an occupation by his opponents.

The next year, he ordered troops into Chechnya to crush a separatist rebellion. The war that followed resulted in more than seventy-five thousand deaths, mostly civilians.

Yet Mister Yeltsin's presidency also led to open elections in Russia. It led to private property rights and the right to free speech. He pushed for economic reforms. But critics said those policies went too far, leaving millions of Russians in poverty. They said the restructuring gave too much economic power to a small number of very wealthy business people, known as oligarchs.

Boris Yeltsin had a history of heart problems and heavy drinking. He suffered a heart attack between the first and second rounds of balloting in the nineteen ninety-six presidential election. His condition, though, was kept hidden. In nineteen ninety-nine, six months before the end of his second term, Mister Yeltsin resigned.

To take his place, he chose his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy. Mister Putin was then elected president in two thousand and re-elected four years later. This week he remembered Mister Yeltsin as a man thanks to whom "a new democratic Russia was born."

Political scientists say history will remember Boris Yeltsin as a leader who was democratic in some ways but not in others. They say Russia under Mister Yeltsin was a far more open place than it was during Soviet times -- and more open than it is now.

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English, written by Brianna Blake. I'm Steve Ember.

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