Yeltsin leaves a democratic Russia

Posted: Monday, January 03, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Chicago Tribune:

History is made mostly by leaders with the instincts to recognize the decisive moment and the boldness to seize the initiative that carries the day. Boris Yeltsin was such a leader, right down to his surprise resignation as Russia's president on Friday.

``Russia must enter the next millennium with new politicians, new faces, new intelligent, strong and energetic people,'' an unusually subdued Yeltsin declared in his resignation speech to the nation. ``As for those of us who have been in power for many years, we must go.''

Yeltsin was in power for eight turbulent years, and much of his legacy remains uncertain. But certain things are clear already. One is that Yeltsin changed the world when, in August 1991, he clambered atop a tank in front of Russia's White House and raised his fist in defiance of Soviet hard-line coup plotters seeking to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev.

President Clinton had it right when late last year he recalled that as ``one of the most important moments in my life as a citizen of the world.'' It was a blow for freedom and democracy after 1,000 years of Russian autocracy. Five months after the failed coup, the Soviet Union disintegrated.

What followed was often chaotic and disillusioning as Yeltsin led a reborn Russia toward constitutional democracy, the rule of law and economic reform. The pale, grim-faced man who said goodbye as president Friday had been erratic in his leadership, constantly playing musical chairs with a succession prime ministers. Still, Yeltsin remained constant to the goal of a market economy and democracy for Russia.

The Russian people may have mixed feelings about Yeltsin now, but history may judge him more kindly. He turned one of the 20th century's evil empires into one of the world's largest democracies. In the new century, Yeltsin's great legacy may be this peaceful, democratic transition and the free elections to come.

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