[JURIST] Boris Yeltsin [Wikipedia profile], Russia's first elected president and the primary architect of the country's shift towards democratic government in the 1990s, died Monday, according to Russian wire services. Yeltsin was 76 and had a history of health problems, including heart trouble. Initial wire reports did not give the cause of death but said that Yeltsin died "suddenly." First elected president of Russia in June 1991 in what turned out to be the last months of the former Soviet Union, the former Politburo member and Moscow mayor [timeline] shot to political ascendancy after disaffected Soviet generals attempted a military coup against Soviet Communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev - the famous architect of perestroika and glasnost and rapprochement with the West - in August of that year. Yeltsin famously stood on a tank in central Moscow, defying the coup leaders. After the failure of the coup Yeltsin filled a political vacuum left by the weakened Gorbachev and ultimately presided over the formal end of the USSR, restoring the name and flag of "Russia" and realigning Russia's relationship with the former Soviet republics.
Yeltsin's rapid drive for liberalizing economic and political reforms rapidly brought him into conflict with legislators in the two Soviet-era parliamentary chambers, the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People's Deputies. Tensions came to a head in 1993 when the Yeltsin attempted to suspend those bodies [WP report] pending new elections and approval of a new constitution [Wikipedia backgrounder]. The legislators in turn impeached Yeltsin and declared him removed. Public protests against Yeltsin began in late September, but the standoff between the two opposing sides was effectively broken by the military and security services in early October when they threw their support behind Yeltsin, enabling him to suppress the parliamentarians by shelling the parliament building. The constitutional changes [new constitution, text] Yeltsin wanted were pushed through in a December 1993 referendum approved by over 58 percent of voters, increasing the political power of the Russian presidency in a broadly democratic political structure.
The latter years of Yeltsin's presidency were marked by increasing economic troubles and allegations of corruption as free market forces were left to run rampant in the newly-liberalized country, giving rise to a class of capitalist "oligarchs". Yeltsin was accused of being involved in bribery and nepotism, and his hold on power loosened as his health declined and rumors of excessive drinking [BBC report] abounded. He faced an additional call for his impeachment from opposition members of the reconstituted State Duma [official website] in 1999, alleging he had acted unconstitutionally in dissolving the former Soviet Union, but the motion did not win enough votes to carry. Yeltsin announced his own resignation from the presidency in favor of secret police head Vladimir Putin on December 31, 1999. One of Putin's first acts on assuming office was to grant his predecessor lifetime immunity from prosecution [BBC report]. RFE/RL has more. The Russian Presidency website provides an official record of Yeltsin's career [in Russian].
11:45 AM ET - Russian news agencies are now saying that Yeltsin died of "long-term heart trouble" [RIA Novosti report].