April 23, 2007 / 4:08 PM / in 10 years

Russia's Yeltsin known for gaffes, off-color jokes

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who died on Monday, developed a penchant over 15 years in high office of jolting world leaders by committing gaffes, cracking off-color jokes or blurting out flippant comments.

Never comfortable with the rigid protocol required for high-level meetings, Yeltsin frequently shunned the niceties of diplomacy to say -- or do -- exactly what came to mind.

Sometimes Yeltsin’s lapses appeared related to excess drinking, though aides always vehemently denied it.

His outlandish behaviour grabbed headlines even in Soviet times -- before his victory as Russia’s first democratically elected president in 1991.

In 1989, Yeltsin had to account to the Supreme Soviet how he had ended up at a police post outside Moscow dripping wet and wearing only his underwear.

He said he had been attacked, his head covered in a sack and dumped off a bridge into a river. Top communists said he had been drunk while on his way to a tryst with a lover.

Once in office, with the Soviet Union replaced by 15 states, Yeltsin’s antics attracted world-wide television attention.

In 1992, he played the spoons, a popular musical instrument in Russia, on the head of Askar Akayev, the president of ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

In 1994, Yeltsin shocked officials during a picnic on a boat steaming down the Volga by suddenly ordering his border guards to toss his spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov into the cold river.

TAKING THE BATON

Officials marking the departure of the last Russian troops from Germany the same year looked on aghast as he stumbled after a champagne lunch, seized the baton from the leader of a military band and insisted on doing the conducting himself.

Later the same day, he grabbed a microphone at a reception and sang tunelessly.

In perhaps the most celebrated incident, Yeltsin failed to emerge from his plane for talks with Ireland’s prime minister during a stopover at Shannon airport in 1994, leaving his hosts stunned on the tarmac.

An aide said he was exhausted, not drunk, after a U.S. visit.

Fatigue was used to explain a 1997 gaffe when Yeltsin startled listeners in Sweden with a dramatic pledge to cut Russia’s nuclear arsenal and seek a total world ban.

A Kremlin spokesman said Yeltsin had made the comment after a long day of meetings.

Never the one to respect political or gender correctness, television cameras caught him at a 1995 meeting with foreign correspondents playfully tweaking the backside of a secretary.

Cameras also showed him energetically twisting on stage to rock music during his 1996 re-election bid. Later, it emerged that he had suffered a heart attack several days earlier.

Sometimes, he would resort to homespun anecdotes -- and Russians’ fondness for vodka -- to appeal to ordinary Russians.

“Some say that vodka is too cheap now and we should raise prices. But I haven’t the courage to do so yet,” he said in the run-up to the 1996 campaign.

“People have special feelings toward this drink. They don’t mind a nip or two after work. So I won’t be in a hurry to raise prices.”

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