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Yeltsin Leaves Behind Mixed Legacy


Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin has died in Moscow at the age of 76. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the Russian leader's legacy.

Western experts on Russia use one word to describe Boris Yeltsin's presidency from 1991 to 1999 - "contradictory."

Marshal Goldman is a Russia expert at Harvard University.

"The positive side, he helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet system, of communism - he brought in democracy, he brought in the market system," said Marshal Goldman. "But the negative side, from a Russian point of view, if you were Russian - under his administration, Russia lost its status as a superpower."

Few can forget the sight of Yeltsin - newly elected president of Russia - standing atop a tank in , declaring illegal an attempted hardline coup against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Several months later - in December - Gorbachev resigned, bringing to an end the existence of the Soviet Union.

But in October 1993, President Yeltsin stunned the world by ordering the army to shell the parliament building occupied by anti-Yeltsin forces, including lawmakers.

Dale Herspring, a Russia expert with Kansas State University, says Yeltsin had no choice.

"He was working with a parliament that was pretty-much communist dominated and what he did was completely illegal but he felt that he had to destroy them in order to get communism out," said Dale Herspring.

Experts say Yeltsin did introduce many aspects of democracy such as multi-party elections, private property and the right to free speech. But they point out that the single military action against the parliament tarnished his image as a democratic leader.

Analysts say on the economic front, Yeltsin's record was also mixed.

Robert Legvold, a Russia expert with Columbia University, says the Russian president wanted to introduce economic reforms to break with the Soviet past.

"But it was not well-designed and the West was not terribly effective, including the United States, in providing sound advice to him on how he might go about something that he didn't understand," said Legvold. "And so in effect he did smash the soviet economic machinery, but he put in its place a kind of ruthless, even crony - and in the public mind - discredited form of capitalism which has since then created basic problems of legitimacy for the economic system that the Russians have."

Legvold says corruption was not a new phenomenon either in the Soviet Union or in Russia. But he says it reached unprecedented heights in the Yeltsin era because of the nature of the reforms - privatization of state-owned enterprises.

"He continually said that his regime needs to fight against it [corruption], just as the Putin regime has said they must fight against it - but they've never found an effective way to do it," he said.

Experts say history will remember Boris Yeltsin as a leader who fluctuated between democratic tendencies and authoritarian actions. They say Russia under his watch was a far more open place than it was under soviet times. But they also say Yeltsin's hand-picked successor - Vladimir Putin - is reverting back to authoritarian rule to correct what the current Russian government believes was the chaos and uncertainty of the Yeltsin years.

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