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Yeltsin: No regret over CIS deal that buried U.S.S.R.

MOSCOW, December 7 (RIA Novosti) - Russia's ex-President Boris Yeltsin said he still believed the CIS was the only option to replace the Soviet Union, which was about to collapse, although he felt nostalgic about Soviet times, a paper reported Thursday.

The post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States will celebrate 15 years since the leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine signed an agreement December 8, 1991, declaring all Soviet republics independent and effectively abolishing the Soviet Union.

In an interview with the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta ahead of the anniversary, Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president who oversaw the demise of the Soviet empire, hailed the courage of those behind the deal.

"I am still thankful to all those who signed our agreement establishing the CIS for their responsibility to history and their nations."

Yeltsin, who fiercely resisted attempts to preserve the Soviet Union, said he was nevertheless nostalgic about Soviet times, as he was born and lived in the Soviet Union, the paper said.

"But I understand very well that all empires are doomed to collapse eventually. At the same time, nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. cannot be helped at heart."

Yeltsin said that living in the country toward the end of the Soviet period was a material and moral challenge, with empty store shelves and fear of repression for dissent from the Communist "party line," the paper reported.

The country was running out of strategic food supplies, foreign loans were "fading away," and a financial crisis was in the offing, all of which resulted in a pervasive political crisis, the paper quoted Yeltsin as saying.

"The Kremlin realized the Soviet Union could not be maintained in the old frame," he told the newspaper.

But the ex-president claimed earlier efforts to reform the union were thwarted by a coup by Communist hardliners in August 1991, which he crushed.

In Russia at the time, Yeltsin moved to end state control of the economy and oversaw sweeping privatization deals, which brought fortunes to a handful of Kremlin-connected businessmen. His further reforms slowed over economic difficulties and political opposition nurtured by the growing gap in incomes.

As quoted by the paper, Yeltsin said the three leaders felt responsible for the consequences of the breakup, and moved to alleviate the transformation by announcing visa-free travel and other steps.

And Russia, although experiencing major economic difficulties itself, provided financial and energy assistance to its former Soviet allies throughout the transition period, the newspaper wrote quoting the ex-president.

"Russia has always fulfilled in earnest its political, economic, and moral obligations to its neighbors," Rossiiskaya Gazeta quoted the ex-president as saying.

"The former [Soviet] republics' economies have survived, revived and begun to develop, also thanks to Russian aid and energy resources. Russian peacekeepers also helped deter many ethnic conflicts," he said.

Yeltsin was upbeat about the future of the CIS, which he said was a viable organization despite predictions of its early demise made since its emergence, the newspaper said.

One of the organization's original intents, according to Russian leaders, was to "allow a civilized divorce" between the Soviet republics. But the member-states - all ex-Soviet republics save three Baltic states - have moved recently to revitalize the union, pursuing a free-trade zone and other joint projects, although they have yet to settle major differences in their relations.

"The countries within the CIS are developing at different economic rates and have different political systems. But they all understand that it is better to be together, rather than apart," Yeltsin told the newspaper.

"Even if an ambitious leader in one of the countries ventured a different turn in history, the people would not support him. Fortunately, we are doomed to be together," Yeltsin said in an apparent reference to some of the post-Soviet states' recent reorientation toward the West.

Speaking about "frozen conflicts" and territorial disputes in the post-Soviet region, Yeltsin said they were a consequence of the policies pursued by the Bolsheviks, who unscrupulously resettled peoples and redrew the maps, according to the paper.

"Latent conflicts exploded when the totalitarian state ceased to exist," he said, urging caution and patience in handling ethnic issues.

Simmering conflicts in Georgia and Moldova have strained relations with Russia, complicating cooperation within the CIS.

The countries accuse Moscow of backing separatists on their territories and demand the withdrawal of its peacekeeping troops. Russia and Ukraine also have to settle a territorial dispute to complete the demarcation of their borders.

Yeltsin highlighted Russia's central role in the CIS and its economic and political potential, and hailed President Vladimir Putin's performance.

Yeltsin's nominee and then prime minister, Putin was appointed acting president in 1999, when his predecessor surprised the nation on New Year's Eve by announcing his resignation following a series of economic crises and frequent Cabinet reshuffles.

In the late 1990s, Yeltsin was confined to a hospital for months, and appeared in public less frequently. In 1996, Yeltsin underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery.