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Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) was the first freely elected president, as well as the first political leader of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He acted as the Russian president from 1991 until the time of his resignation in 2000. Before his rise to the presidency, Yeltsin acted for the reform of the Russian government, and sought to reduce corruption currently devastating the government. He also came out as a supporter of political reform, expressing his support for democratic and economic reform. Yeltsin played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991, and emerged in the reformed government with enough political support to achieve the presidency.
Yeltsin worked as a construction foreman in his early life, until he joined the Communist party in 1961, devoting himself to the party as his full time job in 1968. During the 1970’s Yeltsin came into contact with Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who would rise to become General Secretary of the USSR After Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he elevated Yeltsin to the Politburo and helped him become mayor of the city of Moscow. Yeltsin and Gorbachev shared the belief that reforms were in order, and Gorbachev tasked Yeltsin with reducing the corruption that weakened the Russian government. Gorbachev disagreed with Yeltsin over both the methods and the speed of the reforms, resulting in the two men arguing in Politburo meetings. Gorbachev eventually forced Yeltsin to resign from his Politburo seat, with him leaving the communist party altogether in 1990. Yeltsin’s popularity with the people ensured his demotion did not leave him without political power however.
In 1991, a group of hard line communists attempted a coup against Gorbachev, seizing control of the government in an attempt to backtrack most of the reforms that had put in place. A civil resistance movement sprung up to prevent the seizing of the government, led in part by Yeltsin. The coup itself only lasted two days before the hardliners gave up, and turned the government back over to Gorbachev. The incident seriously harmed the legitimacy of the soviet regime, and the U.S.S.R. during this time, Yeltsin had won a six way election for the presidency, winning with more than fifty percent of the vote. After the coup was stopped, Gorbachev resigned, and the communist party was dissolved shortly after, with most of its power and responsibility being transferred to the new democratically elected government, meaning president Yeltsin.
When Yeltsin came into office, one of his primary goals was to fight corruption that had existed before he came to power, and institute political reform to make the country more democratic. Additionally, Yeltsin hoped to loosen the government’s economic policies, as the current ones had left much of the country financially crippled. In seeking out political reform, Yeltsin met serious opposition from conservatives within the Russian parliament, and he failed to make serious headway for several years. In 1993, Yeltsin proposed the Russian government vote on a new constitution, congress saw this as an attempt to seize power and denied Yeltsin and the reform efforts. This conflict reached a breaking point when in September of 1993, Yeltsin ordered the dissolution of the country’s legislature, even though the presidency lacked the political authority to do so. When the legislature resisted, Yeltsin mobilized troops to surround the parliament building and shell the building’s exterior, which stirred up a short lived civil protest movement against Yeltsin.
In 1994, the state of Chechnya declared its independence from the Russian Federation, attempting to break away as an independent state. Yeltsin responded by sending the Russian army to Chechnya in an attempt to forced them to return to Russian governance. The resulting conflict has come to be known as the First Chechen War, which last from 1994 to 1996. Due to near universal opposition to the war from the Russian people, Yeltsin attempted to negotiate a ceasefire in 1996, resulting in a peace treaty. The campaign severely reduced Yeltsin’s popularity.
On January 31 1999, Yeltsin surprised the world by announcing his surprise resignation, choosing Vladimir Putin as his Successor in the upcoming Russian elections. In his resignation speech, he acknowledged that he had made errors in his leadership, and believed the new millennium required new political leaders. Yeltsin left behind a complicated legacy as president, and is remembered both for his efforts for political reform and his part in ending the Soviet Union, as well as his heavy handed leadership in the presidency.