Tributes pour in for Yeltsin

Tributes were paid to "larger than life" former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin today after the announcement of his death, aged 76.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said he was greatly saddened by the death and conveyed his condolences to people of Russia.

"As Russia's first democratically-elected president, he displayed courageous leadership and political vision in charting the way forward for his country following the dissolution of the Soviet Union," he said.

"He led Russia's democratic transition and successfully resisted a violent attempt to return the country to a totalitarian past."

Mr Yeltsin famously failed to emerged from his private jet for a meeting with former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at Shannon Airport in 1994 because he "overslept".

Mr Yeltsin was in Ireland again last year for a three-day private visit during which he went shark fishing off the West

Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms of the Soviet Union paved the way for the Cold War's end and the rise of Boris Yeltsin, today praised the ex-Russian president while also noting their "massive divergences" over policy.

"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 wrote in a personal letter to Yeltsin's widow, Naina.

The letter expressed Gorbachev's "most deep and sincere condolences" to the Yeltsin family. He called Yeltsin's passing a "loss that cannot be replaced," according to a translation given to The Associated Press by Green Cross International, the Geneva-based environmental group Gorbachev founded in 1993.

One of Yeltsin's greatest moments came as he stood atop a tank to resist an attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. Yeltsin then spearheaded the peaceful end of the Soviet state the following Dec. 25.

"Life had deemed that our fates be entwined over those difficult years that were to act as a turning-point at a time when Russia was searching for a foothold into the future," Gorbachev wrote. "We were connected by our work, by important and vital decisions, all of which left a mark on the country's transformation."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also paid tribute to Yeltsin, saying: "It is with sadness that I learned of the death of former president Yeltsin. He was a remarkable man who saw the need for democratic and economic reform and, in defending it, played a vital role at a crucial time in Russia's history."

Former British Prime Minister Lady Thatcher commented: "Without Boris 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."

Another Former British Prime Minister, John Major, paid tribute to Mr Yeltsin as "a man of great courage and conviction".

"He was the first elected Russian president, he attempted to instil a market economy in Russia in the most unpromising circumstances. Only a man of great courage and conviction would have attempted to do it," he told Sky News.

"He sought to instil in Russia many of the attributes we most cherish in the West and I think to that extent he opened up Russia in a way that continued for a very long time."

Major recalled how he first spoke to Mr Yeltsin at the height of the abortive communist coup.

"I phoned him up and he said to me that he was surrounded by hardline communists. He thought he only had 20 minutes or so and would I go outside Downing Street and tell the world what's happening," said Major.

"I did that and it was the start of a pretty firm friendship that lasted throughout my years in office and has been continued since."

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