International tributes abound for 'historic figure' Yeltsin, dead at 76

Tributes are pouring in from around the world for Boris Yeltsin, the unpredictable and charismatic former Russian president who died Monday at the age of 76.

Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who guided his nation toward democracy and a market economy, died Monday.

Yeltsin, who served as president from 1991 to 1999, was 76.

Praised by Western leaders for championing democracy, Boris Yeltsin was despised by ordinary Russians by the end of his time in office. ((Associated Press))
The cause of death has not been released, but Russian news agencies have reported he died of a heart attack at Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow.

Yeltsin had several heart attacks during the 1990s, undergoing quintuple bypass surgery in November 1996. He also reportedly suffered from pneumonia, bronchitis and ulcers.

In a 2004 interview, he admitted to having five heart attacks while president, often leaving office without explanation for periods of time.

The Kremlin said the funeral will be Wednesday, a day of national mourning, and that Yeltsin will be buried at Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery, where many of Russia's most prominent figures are interred.

Yeltsin was the first popularly elected president of the Russian Federation, taking office in June 1991 on a wave of high expectations.

Heguaranteed the rights to free speech, private property and multi-party elections, and opened the borders to trade and travel.

Putin, Gorbachev offer sympathy

Hispopularity sharply declined as he implemented radical economic reforms, a policy that became known as "shock therapy."

Yeltsin created a private sector and opened up the country to private investment, but failed to prevent the looting of state industry as it moved into private hands.

The economic reforms devastated the living standards of much of Russia's population as capita income fell about 75 per cent during Yeltsin's rule.

He resigned during a dramatic New Year's Eve address on Dec. 31, 1999.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent whom Yeltsin handpicked as his successor in the president's office,said he spoke to Yeltsin's family and offered his "deepest condolences."

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's final leader, noted Yeltsin's achievements and shortcomings.

"I express the very deepest condolences to the family of the deceased, on whose shoulders rest major events for the good of the country and serious mistakes. A tragic fate," Gorbachev said in a statement.

U.S. President George W. Bush called Yeltsin a "historic figure who served his country during a time of momentous change," while British Prime Minister Tony Blair remembered him as a "remarkable man who saw the need for democratic and economic reform."

Resisted coup

One ofYeltsin's most memorable moments cameon Aug. 19,1991, whenhe opposed an attempted coup by hardlinerswho wanted to oust Gorbachev and end his "perestroika" economicreforms.

Yeltsin stood on top of a tank outside the Russian parliament, a day after Gorbachev was arrested at his vacation homein the Crimea.Saying the attempted coup was unconstitutional, he called for a general strike and peaceful protests. The coup attempt endedunsuccessfully.

Months later,Yeltsinspearheaded the peaceful end of the SovietUnion on Dec. 25.

Boris Yeltsin made headlines on Aug. 19, 1991, when he stood on a tank outside Russia's parliament to oppose an attempted coup. ((Associated Press))
He was seen as a man of contrasts, steadfastly defending freedom of the press while manipulating the media like a master. He also showed he was willing to use violent tactics, while advocating peaceful change.

Yeltsinsent tanks and troops in October 1993 to flush armed, hardline opposition-party supporters out of a hostile Russian parliament after they had sparked violence in the streets of Moscow. And in December 1994, Yeltsin launched a war against separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya.

Tens of thousands of people were killed in the Chechnya conflict and a defeated and humiliated Russian army withdrew at the end of 1996. The war solved nothing and Russian troops resumed fighting in the breakaway region in fall 1999.

In 2000, Yeltsin told Russian television he saw no other option at the time and took full responsibility for the lives lost in Chechnya.

A posting on a Chechen rebel website on Monday reminded readers that Yeltsin was a "war criminal… wanted for crimes against humanity," Reuters said.

Strange behaviour

Yeltsin's behaviour became increasingly bizarre during his years in office as rumours of excessive drinking swirled.

In June 1996, Russian President Boris Yeltsin dances at a rock concert after arriving in Rostov. ((Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press))
In 1994,the burly, bear-like Yeltsin jumped on the stage during a visit to Germany to conduct a brass band while singing and dancing.

Later the same year, he failed to get off a plane during an official visit to Ireland. Russian officials told Irish officials that Yeltsin was unwell, while the common belief among journalists covering the visit was that he was drunk.

In 1997, he unexpectedly announced during a visit to Sweden that he would cut Russia's nuclear arsenal by one-third and work toward a total world ban on nuclear weapons. Russian officials scrambled to correct the president.

The following year, during a banquetwith Pope John Paul II, Yeltsin toasted his "love of Italian women," and on another occasion, played wooden spoons on the balding head of Askar Akayev, the president of ex-Soviet stateKyrgyzstan.

He made headlines in Canada for taking former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney boar hunting in 1993, a move that angered animal activists.

Yeltsin was born to a poor peasant family in the Ural mountains and studied engineering and worked as a construction manager before joining the Communist party.

With files from the Associated Press