Putin bids emotional farewell to 1990s predecessor

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Vladimir Putin, his voice shaking with emotion, Friday led tributes to late prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russia paid a final farewell to one of its most prominent post-Soviet statesmen.

Speaking at the funeral ceremony for Chernomyrdin who died on Wednesday, the current Russian premier praised the former government chief for taking on the responsibility of leading and reforming Russia through the chaos of the 1990s.

Putin -- who repeatedly appeared on the verge of tears throughout his address and took frequent pauses to compose himself -- said that Chernomyrdin's hard work and modesty was an example for all Russia's leaders.

Chernomyrdin was prime minister under president Boris Yeltsin from December 1992 to March 1998, with another brief premiership from August-September 1998, a turbulent period that saw war with Chechnya and near economic meltdown.

"He led the government in the most difficult period of our history and we can only guess what moral and physical burdens this caused," Prime Minister Putin said. "His government carried out very difficult reforms."

"There was no arrogance, no yearning for stardom. He simply worked. And worked successfully and effectively," said Putin, standing in front of Chernomyrdin's corpse in an open coffin.

A former Soviet apparatchik, Chernomyrdin is credited with building Russia's state-controlled Gazprom into the world's largest gas firm and showing a reliability that his unpredictable boss Yeltsin sometimes lacked.

Putin handed over the Kremlin to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 after two presidential terms seen as returning economic stability and self respect to Russia after the turbulence of the 1990s.

He has since made technocratic efficiency his mantra in his post of prime minister. "Without doubt Viktor Stepanovich is an example for us all," he said.

Never seen as a radical reformer like the mastermind of economic "shock therapy" Yegor Gaidar who died in December, Chernomyrdin was nonetheless a symbol of a bygone era before Putin began his decade-long grip on power.

Medvedev, standing side-by-side with Putin in the funeral ceremony attended by Russia's entire political elite, said Chernomyrdin had been a calming and consolidating influence in the wild years after the Soviet collapse.

"The 1990s were extraordinarily hard. People were not paid their salaries, lost their jobs, the mood in society was heavy. All that burden lay on Viktor Stepanovich," he said.

"He did everything he could so that things calmed down in society and urgent economic problems were solved."

Chernomyrdin, 72, was later Friday buried in the cemetery of the Novodevichy Convent, the traditional resting place of Russia's greatest heroes, in a grave next to that of his wife who died earlier this year.

His coffin was honoured with a procession through the streets of Moscow to the cemetery, followed by a salute fired in his honour and last rites read by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill.

© 2010 AFP

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