Kremlin forced Yeltsin to live in "golden cage": Ex-PM

MOSCOW Mon Sep 21, 2009 10:21am EDT

A picture of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin is seen with a black ribbon at the Russian embassy in Warsaw April 24, 2007. REUTERS/Katarina Stoltz

A picture of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin is seen with a black ribbon at the Russian embassy in Warsaw April 24, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Katarina Stoltz

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's first president Boris Yeltsin spent his retirement in a "golden cage," his phone tapped and the Kremlin controlling visitors, a close colleague said on Monday in excerpts from a forthcoming book.

Vladimir Putin, who replaced Yeltsin as president in 2000, forced Yeltsin to celebrate his 75th birthday in the Kremlin and controlled the guest list, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov wrote in his memoir.

"Yeltsin was very upset that they forced him to celebrate his birthday in the Kremlin and not as he wanted, freely, informally," Kasyanov wrote in the book, excerpts of which were published in the opposition weekly The New Times on Monday.

"I think he then finally understood that he was living as a prisoner in a golden cage. To accept this fact was of course a tragedy for him."

Yeltsin, who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union and a rapid sell-off of state enterprises, resigned unexpectedly on December 31, 1999, making Putin acting president. After his election to the presidency, Putin, a former KGB officer, set about clawing back central power Yeltsin had ceded to the regions and stripping powerful oligarchs of their influence.

Under Putin, the Yeltsin era was widely portrayed as a time of chaos and corruption, though graft is still cited by Putin's successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, as a blight.

PHONES BUGGED

Soon after taking power, Putin asked his ministers not to bother Yeltsin unnecessarily due to his health, Kasyanov said. "It was polite, but in essence a command: no one should visit Yeltsin any more," Kasyanov said.

Yeltsin later complained that his phones were being bugged, and urged Kasyanov to frequently change his phone number to avoid being overheard, Kasyanov said.

Yeltsin spent his retirement in a luxurious government-owned mansion and was often seen at major sports events. But he remained out of public politics even after Putin began to reverse his democratic reforms.

Kasyanov said the pair found it difficult to meet after Yeltsin's 75th birthday celebrations in 2006 as the Kremlin micro-managed Yeltsin's life and Kasyanov became one of Putin's fiercest critics.

The pair met for the final time in 2006 when Yeltsin had to intervene so Kasyanov would be allowed visit him in hospital with a broken hip.

Yeltsin ended his life in luxury in 2007, but his much of his political legacy had been erased and Kasyanov has become a marginal opposition figure, ridiculed in the state media.

"Russia's first president himself consented to his lack of freedom," Kasyanov said. "He paid for this with very serious discomfort inside."

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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