Russia remembers Yeltsin 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 stared down Communism and absorbed the country's ire during subsequent years of pain.

Yeltsin died at the age of 76 in 2007 with opinion still divided about his achievements as the country's first post-Soviet president.

Yet Yeltsin's vast legacy has hung over Russia and his times of great hopes and troubles were being remembered through a week-long series of television programmes and exhibitions.

The main event Tuesday was held in Yekaterinburg -- the capital of what in Soviet times was known as the Sverdlovsk district where Yeltsin rose through the ranks from builder to first secretary of the region's Communist Party.

Medvedev unveiled a 10-metre (33-foot) white marble statue of Yeltsin with an emotional speech that recalled the pain the country was going through in the 1990s and the courage their leader had to stay on 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 as Yeltsin's wife Naina stood at his side.

"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 bombed his Communist rivals into submission during a dramatic 1993 tank attack on parliament.

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

But Yeltsin absorbed the nation's anger and kept his economic reformers on board long enough to introduce a convertible currency and a commercial sector that slowly began to come to life.

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

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

"Everyone who lives here loves Boris Nikolayevich for being a sincere leader even in what may have been our most difficult and painful years, when our country was going through its difficult journey," said Medvedev.

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

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

"He fully committed himself to a cause that he served," said Naina Yeltsin. "And he served only one cause -- to make the country free and democratic."

© 2011 AFP

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