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Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin

Yeltsin, Boris Nikolayevich (bərēsˈ nyĭkəlĪˈəvĭch yĕltˈsĭn) [key], 1931–2007, Soviet and Russian politician, president of Russia (1991–99). Born in Yekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk) and educated at the Urals Polytechnic Institute, Yeltsin began his career as a construction worker (1953–68). He joined the Communist party in 1961, becoming first secretary of the Sverdlovsk region in 1976 and a member of the central committee in 1981. In 1985 he was chosen by Mikhail Gorbachev as Moscow party boss, and in 1986 he was inducted into the party's ruling Politburo. In Oct., 1987, however, he was ousted from his Moscow post after clashing with conservatives and criticizing Gorbachev's reforms as inadequate. Attracting a large following as a populist advocate of radical reform, Yeltsin won (1989) election to the USSR's Supreme Soviet (parliament) as an opposition member.

In 1990, Yeltsin was elected to the Russian Republic's Supreme Soviet, was elected Russian president by that body, and resigned from the Communist party. He retained (1991) the presidency in a popular election—in which he became Russia's first democratically elected president—and assumed the role of Gorbachev's chief liberal opponent. His successful opposition to the August Coup (1991) against Gorbachev shifted power to the reformers and republics, and Yeltsin helped found (Dec. 8, 1991) the Commonwealth of Independent States, ending attempts to preserve the Soviet Union.

As president of an independent Russia, Yeltsin moved to end state control of the economy and privatize most enterprises. However, economic difficulties and political opposition, particularly from the Supreme Soviet, slowed his program and forced compromises. In Sept., 1993, Yeltsin suspended parliament and called for new elections. When parliament's supporters resorted to arms, they were crushed by the army. Although Yeltsin won approval of his proposed constitution, which guaranteed private property, a free press, and human rights, in the Dec., 1993, voting, many of his opponents won seats in the new legislature.

In foreign affairs Yeltsin greatly improved relations with the West and signed (1993) the START II nuclear disarmament treaty with the United States. He failed, however, to secure more than a limited amount of economic aid. In 1994, Yeltsin sent forces into Chechnya in order to suppress a separatist rebellion, forcing Russia into a difficult and unpopular struggle.

In 1996 Yeltsin again ran for the presidency against a number of other candidates and won the first round, garnering 35% of the vote to Communist Gennady Zyuganov's 32%; Yeltsin won the runoff election. In the late 1990s, however, a series of economic crises, frequent cabinet reshufflings, and his own deteriorating health and alcoholism cast doubt on his ability to rule; charges of corruption in his family and among members of his inner circle also became prominent. In May, 1999, Yeltsin survived an impeachment attempt spearheaded by the Communist opposition. A second invasion of Chechnya (1999), prompted by a Chechen invasion of Dagestan and related terrorist bombings in Russia, proved popular with many Russians, and progovernment parties did well in the 1999 parliamentary elections. On Dec. 31, 1999, the long-ailing Yeltsin suddenly announced his resignation; Prime Minister Vladimir Putin succeeded him as acting president.

See his memoirs, Against the Grain (tr. 1990), The Struggle for Russia (tr. 1994), and Midnight Diaries (tr. 2000); biographies by L. Aron (2000) and T. J. Colton (2008).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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