Chernomyrdin, PM in Russia's post-Soviet chaos, dies at 72

3rd November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Ex-prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a symbol of Russia's tumultuous half decade after the Soviet collapse that saw war and near economic meltdown, died Wednesday aged 72, the Kremlin said.

A dour ex-apparatchik, Chernomyrdin showed a steady hand at the helm of government in contrast to his unpredictable boss president Boris Yeltsin but also amused Russians with his folksy aphorisms.

His long stint in power from December 1992 to March 1998, with another brief premiership from August-September 1998, included the first war over the breakaway region of Chechnya and hyperinflation during the 1998 economic crisis.

"If it wasn't for Viktor Chernomyrdin personally, we would not have the history we have now," said former deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais, who worked in his government and masterminded Russia's privatisation programme.

"Without him, our people would live a different life," he said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the cabinet to observe a minute's silence in memory of Chernomyrdin, who he described as "a true patriot of Russia".

Putin said Chernomyrdin was a "man whom we all knew very well, respected and loved."

"Behind the exterior simplicity and jokes" stood a "very subtle intelligent and decent man," he added.

Chernomyrdin was to be laid to rest on Friday at Russia's renowned Novodevichy Cemetery, the final resting place for many of the country's greatest heroes, according to a Kremlin decree.

The former prime minister died in the early hours of Wednesday, the Kremlin said. It did not specify the cause of his death but he had been known to have been ill for some time.

Prior to his appointment as prime minister he also served as the first head of Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom which he formed from the Soviet Union's gas assets across the country.

Yeltsin's appointment of Chernomyrdin as prime minister came as a complete shock to the man, as most people expected Yeltsin to pick liberal reformist Yegor Gaidar.

But through his term the former gas industry bureaucrat built up enough political drive to head a conservative party named "Our Home Is Russia" and hint at presidential aspirations.

"I am in support of a market but not a bazaar," he said after his appointment, marking a diversion from Gaidar's radical reforms and creating his reputation as a specialist of catchphrases.

Other Chernomyrdin's sayings include "we hoped for the best but ended up with the usual" and "no matter what party you try to create, the result is the the Communist party" and have already become colloquial proverbs.

Chernomyrdin was "an extraordinary man of very humble upbringing who was put forward by history to one of the top posts in a very difficult moment for Russia," former economy minister Yevgeny Yasin, who now heads the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told Echo of Moscow radio.

The premier took the spotlight when he handled a major hostage crisis in 1995 during the First Chechen War after Chechen rebels took some 1,500 people captive in a hospital in Budyonnovsk, a town in south Russia.

Chernomyrdin emerged as a leader when he held televised phone negotiations with rebel leader Shamil Basayev while Yeltsin was away in the United States. The five-day siege ended when Chernomyrdin promised a ceasefire in Chechnya.

"Now they say that you cannot hold talks with terrorists, but he began talks to save the hostages. He took the risk and responsibility," human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, who was a parliament member in the 1990s, told Interfax.

Vladimir Putin appointed Chernomyrdin as ambassador to Ukraine early on in his first presidential term in 2001. He kept the post through 2009, when he became President Dmitry Medvedev's advisor on economic issues in the ex-Soviet countries.

© 2010 AFP

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