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Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's prime minister in the '90s, dies at 72

November 3, 2010 | 11:41 am

Viktor Chernomyrdin, who served as Russia's prime minister in the turbulent 1990s as the country was throwing off communism and developing as a market economy, died Wednesday in Moscow. He was 72.

No cause of death has been released, but Chernomyrdin had grown thin in recent years and was reported to have been ill. His wife of nearly 50 years died early this year.

In recognition of the stature Chernomyrdin has carried in Russia's post-Soviet history, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered his chief of staff to organize Friday's funeral and instructed the state television network to broadcast it live.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin paid tribute to him at the start of a Cabinet meeting with a moving eulogy.

Chernomyrdin helped see Russia through some difficult times, including the economic devastation that followed the Soviet collapse and the war in Chechnya, where he once played a crucial if unlikely role as peace negotiator.

Over the years he grew on his countrymen, who came to appreciate his everyman's charms and sense of humor.

He had a knack for bursting out with colorful, nongrammatical expressions, such as "we wanted the best but things turned out as always," a phrase that has become part of Russian culture.

Born in a Siberian village, he was a bear of a man who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party to head the Soviet oil and gas ministry from 1985 to 1989. Chernomyrdin then engineered the transformation of the ministry into a state gas company, Gazprom, which is now the bedrock of Russia's economy.

In late 1992, he was appointed prime minister by then-President Boris Yeltsin and surprised the young economists leading Russia's transformation by pushing ahead with liberal reforms.

In 1995, in the middle of the first Chechen war, he held televised negotiations with rebel leader Shamil Basayev, whose forces had taken more than 1,500 people hostage in a hospital in Budyonnovsk. The hostages were freed in exchange for Russia's promise to begin negotiating a peaceful settlement, but Chernomyrdin took heat for allowing the hostage-takers to escape.

His phrase "Shamil Basayev, we can't hear you, speak louder," a plea made during the negotiations, became a symbol of the war. For some it showed the government's helplessness against the rebels, but others saw in it a rare and admirable willingness to compromise for the sake of saving lives.

Chernomyrdin was fired in March 1998, but following the financial crash in August of that year, when Russia defaulted on its debts and devalued its currency, Yeltsin asked him to return as prime minister. Parliament, however, refused to confirm him.

In 2001, a year after Putin had been elected president, he appointed Chernomyrdin as ambassador to Ukraine. Chernomyrdin had been elected to Parliament and his diplomatic posting was seen as an effort to distance a political heavyweight from Moscow. Chernomyrdin remained ambassador until last year.

Putin praised him Wednesday as a "real patriot," noting his contributions to the development of Russia, but most of all his character.

"Behind his seeming simplicity, his jokes, his playing on his own aphorisms ... was in fact hidden a subtle, wise and decent man," Putin said at the televised Cabinet meeting. He concluded by asking the ministers to rise to pay their respects.

Chernomyrdin is to be buried beside his wife in Novodevichy Cemetery, the final resting place of Yeltsin, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and many of Russia's most notable cultural and military figures.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, right, with President Boris Yeltsin in 1993. Credit: Grigory Dukor / Reuters