Unpredictable Tsar Boris, the ideal newsmaker

MOSCOW Wed Apr 25, 2007 11:29am BST

1 of 2. Russian President Boris Yeltsin waves from the balcony of the Russian Parliament to a crowd of demonstrators protesting against the overthrow of Soviet President Gorbachev during the brief coup in August 1991.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Samojeden

MOSCOW (Reuters) - He was a hero to some and a villain to others, but for reporters working with him, Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president who died on Monday, was an ideal newsmaker -- always open, never predictable.

I nearly fell from my chair when I turned on the television on New Year's Eve 1999 to hear him say: "I am leaving".

His popularity was close to zero and his health, undermined by years of political struggle and hard drinking, hardly allowed him more than a couple of hours of productive work a day.

But the thought that Tsar Boris -- as he was addressed by his political adversaries for his renowned love of power -- could become the first Kremlin ruler to quit on his own initiative sounded unimaginable.

The sudden resignation marked the end of a 12-year period during which I reported on the career of one of the most prominent politicians of the past century, whose drive changed beyond recognition life in the world's largest country.

My first encounter with Yeltsin occurred in June 1988 when, as a young reporter, I was dispatched to cover a Communist Party conference, where as the disgraced Moscow party boss he attacked foes instead of displaying due humility.

"The country is sinking in corruption!" the red-faced Yeltsin, never adept at concealing his emotions, roared at the presidium of venerable party leaders -- language previously thought reserved for reviled dissidents.

"Boris, you are wrong," party ideologist Yegor Ligachev told the furious rebel in an attempt to shame him.

"Boris, you are right!" was the response the next morning -- emblazoned on posters, in graffiti and across T-shirts throughout Moscow.

A motto for popular protests that brought millions into the streets over the next three years was born.

His time was not long in coming.

HALF-HEARTED COUP

In August 1991, a group of Communist hardliners launched a half-hearted coup against reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin headed the resistance.

Pictures of him defiantly addressing a crowd of supporters from a tank turret with a passionate appeal to oppose the coup have become an icon of Russia's turbulent journey into democracy from communism.

My most vivid memories are of Yeltsin chatting with guards, journalists and Mstislav Rostropovich, the cello virtuoso who returned from abroad to support those resisting the takeover in a riverside headquarters known as the white house.

"The best people are with us, that's how it should be and that's why we shall win," he said then.

It was just two years later that Yeltsin sent tanks to fire at the white house, where opponents he accused of trying to bring back Communism, had barricaded themselves in after launching a coup against him in October 1993.

That confrontation, in which hundreds died, all but destroyed Yeltsin's reputation, already compromised by a messy start to market reforms, in which millions were made penniless.

But Tsar Boris showed no signs of vacillation.

"There will be no return to communism," he said during his first public appearance after the coup.

His next major test came ahead of his 1996 bid for re-election. Weakened by serious heart problems and humiliated by the failure of his attempt to crush separatism in Chechnya, Yeltsin confronted a resurgent Communist opponent.

His doctors said he would not survive a campaign. Hardline aides advised him to scrap the election, but Tsar Boris said "no".

He sacked the main hawk in his entourage, long-time bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, and plunged into a new adventure.

I remember Yeltsin, ageing and clearly unwell during a whistle-stop tour of central Russia, transforming within seconds into an exuberant leader at a stadium in the Volga city of Kazan.

He performed a mixture of break dances and Cossack folk steps, warming up the crowd of mostly young people into a near-frenzy and urging them to "vote with your hearts" and spurn the outdated Communists.

The crowd screamed with glee.

Critics say huge contributions from big business made Yeltsin's re-election possible. But memories of that election campaign make it clear -- it was personality that mattered.

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