Boris Yeltsin marked his 75th birthday Wednesday, with more than 200 guests expected to honor Russia's first post-Soviet president at an evening Kremlin gala. Several former world leaders were among those slated to attend the celebrations, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton and, according to Russian media, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Some six years after he stepped down abruptly and handed the reins to Putin, a former KGB chief, Yeltsin has maintained a quiet retirement, appearing occasionally at sports tournaments and civic celebrations, but largely steering clear of politics.
Many Russians blame Yeltsin for the post-Soviet economic meltdown that led to a dramatic plunge in living standards. In excerpts from an interview broadcast on state-run television, Yeltsin, dressed in a white sweater and occasionally pumping his fist for emphasis, acknowledged that his tenure as president was far from untroubled.
"The main achievement is that the Bolshevik, totalitarian, Communist system was broken," Yeltsin said, "and a new democratic state was created, on civic, market principles with the freedom of the people, of the citizens in the country. Not immediately, of course. But the institutions were founded and today they are working and their work is improving.
"Yes, it was a difficult period. It was necessary for everyone to go through this. This was necessary. For common people, the leadership and the president," he said. At his annual Kremlin news conference on Tuesday, Putin said Yeltsin's greatest achievement was giving Russian citizens freedom, but he alluded to the difficulties of the era.
"Russia was living through dramatic years. Regrettably, citizens of our nation suffered huge losses during these years," Putin said. In an interview published Wednesday in Izvestia, Yeltsin praised Putin for his leadership in the face of terrorist threats of recent years, but also offered tacit criticism for the Kremlin crackdown on independent media, which has hobbled nearly all Russian broadcast media and many publications.
"I considered that television independent of the state is the foundation of civil society. Of course, you end up having to suffer, to be tolerant ... but we are obligated to preserve an independent mass media," Yeltsin was quoted as saying. "Therefore, I never once filed suit against the mass media. Not one director of the TV channels or the print press ever received a request from me,” reports the AP. I.L.