Yeltsin, who had long been ailing, died at 3:45 pm (1145 UTC) in Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital of an apparent heart attack, leaving behind a Russia that watchdogs say still struggles to become a nation that respects religious and political rights.
While Yeltsin lifted some state controls over churches following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he eventually signed a controversial Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.
The legislation, signed a decade ago, "establishes a highly discriminatory system dividing religious communities into "religious groups" and "religious organizations," said Human Rights Watch/Helsinki at the time.
"The law gives enormous discretional powers to local authorities to determine whether a religious community will be recognized as a "group" or an "organization," and mandates a fifteen-year waiting period for religious groups that seek to gain status as a religious organization," the group explained.
Even before Vladimir Putin took over power, it warned that "Russia has returned to the Soviet practice of issuing legislation restricting rights and freedoms."
Soon after, church groups including evangelical missionaries and church leaders reported attempts by local authorities to restrict the rights of non-traditional religious communities and repression of especially non-Orthodox Christian communities. Some missionaries were even expelled or refused entry and churches were closed or raided.
The law was also seen as the blue-print for other restrictive measures to stop the spread of what Russian officials see as "cults" or "sects," amid apparent fears they could challenge lose their power base and close ties with the influential Russian Orthodox Church.
Yet, even the Russian Orthodox Church, long seen as a close ally of Russian President Putin added its voice to the chorus of opposition that greeted the recent passage of Russia's 'Law on Non-Governmental Organizations'.
Russian Orthodox leaders reportedly said that the new requirements are "reminiscent" of the Soviet Union, as they allegedly limit religious freedom and Christian activities, BosNewsLife monitored.
Under the new legislation NGOs, including churches are required to register with special state agencies, supply details of membership, provide sources of funding and give a record of all meetings. Russian Ministries, a major evangelical mission group working in Russia, said this could make it impossible for Christian organizations and churches to function.
However after sustained lobbying by religious communities, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov "significantly simplified the accounting procedure for religious organizations" under the NGO law, as well as extending the deadline for religious organizations to submit their financial accounts to 1 June 2007, human rights watchdog Forum 18 said.
The religious tensions are just some of the troubles Yeltsin was unable to solve before appointing former KGB-spy Putin to succeed him, officials said. On Monday, April 23, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet President, paid therefore a mixed tribute to Yeltsin.
"I offer my deepest condolences to the family of a man on whose shoulders rested many great deeds for the good of the country and serious mistakes -- a tragic fate," the former Soviet leader was quoted by Interfax as saying.
Yet others, including the United States, praised Yeltsin as a beacon of change. "He was an historic figure during a time of great change and challenge for Russia. Our condolences go to Mrs Yeltsin, their family and the people of Russia,’ said US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Commentators were also quick to point out that Yeltsin, a bear of a man with a penchant for flamboyant gestures, would be best remembered around the world for bravely clambering onto a tank sent into Moscow in 1991 by Communist hardliners attempting a coup in the final days of the Soviet Union.
That defiance galvanized crowds of pro-democracy supporters, ushering in the Soviet collapse in December 1991 and Yeltsin’s rise to power. Faced with the near collapse of the once-mighty Soviet armed forces and social system, Yeltsin tried to drag Russia into the new era.
Although he forced the bankrupt Communist economy to adopt capitalism, unleashed political pluralism, and allowed more media freedom, his reputation was tarnished by reports of heavy drinking, secret hospitalizations after heart attacks, and launching the war in the breakaway region of Chechnya.
Many Russians blame Yeltsin for Russia’s slide from superpower status to playing second fiddle to the United States on the international stage, analysts say. (With reporting from Moscow and Washington and BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest).
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