Russia hails Yeltsin legacy on 80th birthday

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President Dmitry Medvedev hailed Boris Yeltsin on the late leader's 80th birthday Tuesday as a visionary who pushed Russia towards reform despite a decade marked by political chaos and economic crisis.

Yeltsin died at the age of 76 in 2007 with opinion still divided about his achievements as the country's first post-Soviet president and remembered as much for alcohol-fuelled antics in public as his politics.

Yet Yeltsin's legacy has always loomed large over Russia and the hopes and disappointments of the turbulent 1990s are being remembered through a week-long series of television programmes and exhibitions.

Medvedev Tuesday unveiled a 10-metre (33-foot) white marble statue of Yeltsin in Yekaterinburg -- the capital of the Urals region where Yeltsin rose through the ranks from builder to first secretary of the local Communist Party.

In an an emotional speech that recalled the pain the country was going through in the 1990s, Medvedev underlined the courage Yeltsin had to draw on to keep to his pro-democracy course.

"Today's Russia should be grateful to Yeltsin for the fact that in its most difficult years, the country did not veer off the course of changes, conducted serious reforms, and is today moving forward," Medvedev said in televised remarks.

"We have to admit that Yeltsin withstood his tests with honour," Medvedev said during a ceremony that was also attended by Yeltsin's widow Naina and daughters Yelena Okulova and Tatyana Dyachenko.

"The fact that we now have a modern country that is developing -- perhaps not without problems, but still moving forward -- goes to the credit of Boris Nikolayevich and those who helped him build a new state," said Medvedev.

Yeltsin spearheaded the pro-democracy movement in the late 1980s and more controversially defeated his Communist rivals during a dramatic 1993 tank attack on parliament.

The country in those years also experienced vertiginous inflation rates and shocking unemployment numbers that put his team's economic reforms under doubt.

His time is also remembered by many Russians for outrageous corruption and questionable deals between major power brokers and the state.

He also embarrassed many Russians with escapades that included grabbing a conductor's baton while on a state visit and reducing US ex president Bill Clinton to hysterical giggles during a press conference.

But Medvedev skirted those issues in a speech that honoured Yeltsin as a man of "conviction and will".

Yeltsin kept his economic reformers on board long enough to introduce a convertible currency and a commercial sector that slowly began to come to life.

"Those times set the foundation of a market economy despite it being a very painful process. But the reforms were conducted and we now have an economy that lives by modern laws," Medvedev said.

His widow Naina said Yeltsin gave his heart to serving his country "and that heart in the end succumbed".

Yeltsin dramatically resigned on New Year's Eve 1999 when his approval ratings were in the low single figures and his health became a subject of almost daily debate.

Yeltsin handed power over to former intelligence agent Vladimir Putin -- a man who has dominated Russia in both his former role as president and his current capacity as prime minister.

But some who worked closely with Yeltsin said they lamented the direction the country headed after his retirement.

His former chief of staff Valentin Yumashev even suggested that Yeltsin was also disappointed with his hand-picked successor as he watched him eliminate direct regional elections and bring independent media under state control.

"I won't say that it's not true," Yumashev told the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily when asked if Yeltsin had been "disappointed" in Putin. "In my opinion, Boris Nikolayevich considered Putin his son, his project."

© 2011 AFP

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