Tributes paid to Yeltsin ahead of funeral

The funeral of former President Boris Yeltsin – who engineered the final collapse of the Soviet Union and pushed Russia toward pluralism and a market economy – will take place tomorrow.

The Kremlin said Yeltsin would be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, where many of Russia’s most prominent figures are interred.

Yeltsin died of heart failure yesterday afternoon at the age of 76.

He died in the Central Clinical Hospital, Russian news agencies reported, citing Sergei Mironov, head of the presidential administration’s medical centre.

Although Yeltsin was initially admired abroad for his defiance of the monolithic Communist system, many Russians will remember him mostly for presiding over the steep decline of their nation.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, summed up the complexity of Yeltsin’s political life in a condolence statement minutes after the death was announced. He referred to Yeltsin as one “on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors,” according to the news agency Interfax.

President Vladimir Putin called Yeltsin’s widow, Naina, to express condolences, the Kremlin said, but it did not quote his remarks.

World leaders responded quickly to his death, calling him a personal friend and praising him as a courageous fighter during the Soviet Union’s dramatic change that marked the end of the Cold War.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and the Russian people. Former President Yeltsin led Russia through a period of historic transformation,” US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The European Union and the Nato alliance hailed Yeltsin as a healer of the Cold War divide who opened up Russia to the rest of Europe.

“As President he had enormous challenges and difficult mandates, but he certainly brought East and West closer together and helped replace confrontation by cooperation,” said Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.

He said Yeltsin would be best remembered as standing up to the coup d’etat aimed at restoring a dictatorial regime in Russia.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others called him a personal friend.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called Yeltsin “one of the really great men of our time.”

Former US President Bill Clinton, who was Yeltsin’s counterpart for much of the 1990s, said Yeltsin believed that democracy was the only way to restore Russia’s position of greatness in the post-communist era, working tirelessly toward that goal to the detriment of his own health.

“Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him because he was courageous and steadfast on the big issues peace, freedom, and progress,” Clinton said in a statement with his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton.

President George Bush called Yeltsin a “historic figure who served his country during a period of momentous change".

“Although we would sometimes have massive divergences over our politics, we were both, nevertheless, trying to do what we thought best for our country and its people,” Gorbachev, whose reforms prepared the way for Yeltsin’s political rise, wrote in a personal letter to Yeltsin’s widow, Naina. He called Yeltsin’s passing a “loss that cannot be replaced".

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose academic career was largely spent studying the Soviet Union, said Yeltsin “ushered in a new era for his country in which ordinary Russians were able to speak and worship without fear, to own property, and to choose their leaders freely.

“In doing so, he inspired a generation of young Russians to build a bright new future for their country and to choose peaceful relations with their new neighbours,” she said in a statement.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso expressed condolences on behalf of the government and the Japanese people.

In a statement released today, Aso said Yeltsin “made substantial efforts at promoting reform policies in new Russia and laid a new foundation for advancing Japan-Russia relations including efforts at resolving a territorial issue,” a reference to competing claims over the Kurile Islands.

Others hailed Yeltsin as a healer of the Cold War divide, opening up Russia to the rest of Europe.

Yeltsin “will be remembered for the critical role he played in advancing political and economic reforms in Russia, as well as in fostering rapprochement between East and West,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, according to a spokeswoman.

Many leaders said Yeltsin would be best remembered as standing on a tank outside the Russian parliament building, defying the coup aimed at restoring a dictatorial regime in Russia. Others praised the difficult path he followed in acknowledging the independence of former states of the Soviet Union.

“It’s largely thanks to Yeltsin that we got free without bloodshed,” Estonian politician Peeter Tulviste told the Baltic News Service.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that without Yeltsin, “Russia would have remained in the grip of communism and the Baltic states would not be free. He deserves to be honoured as a patriot and liberator.”

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Polish President Lech Walesa said it was Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, who was the driving force that ultimately led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

“If he hadn’t done that, all the processes across the world of that sort would have come to a halt and been drawn back, and so the great service of Yeltsin is what we have today – a free world, the era based on knowledge, the internet, globalisation. And so we bow our heads in his memory,” said Walesa.

Yeltsin’s personality could be as strong as his actions, leaders remembered.

“He could be moody and introspective, but once he was a friend, he was a friend for life,” former British Prime Minister John Major told the BBC.

“I think his tremendous work in terms of instilling democracy is what will stand out when people have forgotten the economic difficulties, and forgotten the miscellaneous matters about as whether he drank too much.”

In August 1994, Yeltsin’s antics as he and then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl presided over an otherwise dignified withdrawal of the Red Army from east Germany endeared him to Germans. On the steps of Berlin’s Rotes Rathaus city hall, a flush-faced Yeltsin grabbed a police band conductor’s baton and began directing the musicians.

“Boris Yeltsin was a large personality in Russian and international politics, a courageous fighter for democracy and freedom and a true friend of Germany,” current German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

South African President Thabo Mbeki called Yeltsin “indeed a friend of South Africa in his endeavours to consolidate and strengthen political, cultural and people-to-people relations between the Russian Federation and South Africa.”

Yeltsin was president when the African National Congress finally came to power in 1994 elections after a fight against white minority rule.

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