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Architect of Russia's 'shock therapy' dies

The former PM, who ruined a generation's savings overnight, is also regarded as a market reformer.

MOSCOW // Yegor Gaidar, the widely reviled architect of Russia's turbulent market reforms and one of the most divisive figures in the country's post-Soviet period, died at his home outside Moscow yesterday, his aides said. He was 53. Gaidar, who served as prime minister under Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, died of a blood clot at his home in the village of Uspenskoye, 40km west of Moscow, a police source told the Interfax news agency.

As deeply despised by his detractors as he was revered by his supporters, Gaidar was inextricably linked with his "shock therapy" market reforms in the early 1990s aimed at preventing a disastrous shortage of goods but which overnight wiped out the life savings of tens of millions of people. With store shelves bare across the country as the Soviet Union disintegrated, Gaidar, as Yeltsin's economics and finance minister, lifted price controls in January 1992, sparking hyperinflation that saw prices spike by a factor of 26 by the end of the year. With a stroke of his pen, Gaidar had managed to demolish a generation's entire savings overnight, although his allies say the move averted disaster by returning food and other goods to the shelves.

Anatoly Chubais, a fellow market reformer under Yeltsin and also a widely loathed figure in Russia, described Gaidar as "an intellectual and moral leader for all of us". "He was a great man," Mr Chubais wrote on his blog yesterday. "Russia is very lucky to have had him in one of the most difficult times of its history - He saved the country from hunger, civil war and collapse." Since his ascent nine years ago, Vladimir Putin, Russia's former president and current prime minister, has garnered significant political capital decrying the excesses of the Yeltsin years and the social and economic chaos associated with the market reforms and murky privatisations carried out by Gaidar and his fellow reformers.

Both Mr Putin and his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, offered their condolences yesterday. Gaidar's death is an "enormous loss for Russia, for all of us", Mr Putin said in a statement, calling him a "true citizen and patriot". "Not every government official has the opportunity to serve his motherland at the most critical moments of its history and make key decisions that will determine the future of the country," said Mr Putin, whom Yeltsin hand-picked as his successor in 1999. "He did not back away from responsibility and absorbed the blows in the most difficult situations with honour and courage."

Mr Medvedev echoed his mentor's sentiments, noting that Gaidar shouldered criticism for "unpopular, but necessary measures". "He always followed firmly his beliefs, earning him respect among his allies and opponents," the Russian president said. Born into a prominent family in Moscow on March 19, 1956 Gaidar studied economics and was analysing the possibility of economic reforms for an official Soviet state committee on the subject as early as 1983.

Gaidar was the leading voice among young economists pushing for reforms when, in 1991, a group of Communist Party hardliners attempted to stage a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader. Gaidar showed up at the Russian government building during the failed coup to offer his support to Yeltsin, who subsequently tapped him as a key economic adviser as Russia became an independent state. Gaidar would later serve for six months as Yeltsin's prime minister before being forced out at the end of 1992.

In recent years, Gaidar had turned his focus to writing and the influential think tank he headed, the Institute for Economies in Transition. In 2003, when the pro-business political party he had helped found - the Union of Right Forces - announced that Gaidar had been invited by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to consult on an economic recovery plan, Russia's chattering class joked that the White House would essentially be unleashing a weapon of mass destruction by bringing Gaidar on board.

Mr Gorbachev yesterday said he was "personally grieving" Gaidar's death but maintained that his policies were misguided. "Gaidar went into politics with many hopes, but his plan was to [resolve all the problems] in one shot," Mr Gorbachev told the Itar-Tass news agency. The Russian blogosphere was pulsing with schadenfreude yesterday from Gaidar's bitter detractors, reflecting Russians' continuing deep antipathy toward his reforms.

His former colleague, pro-business politician Boris Nemtsov, acknowledged the widespread hatred of Gaidar, but praised him for his fortitude. "He stood before the choice of civil war or painful reforms," Mr Nemtsov told the Ekho Moskvy radio station. "He gave his life to avert civil war." Gaidar is survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter, Maria Gaidar, a prominent liberal political activist.

cschreck@thenational.ae