Beyond Boris Yeltsin: Transition: Kremlin chief says he will retire in 2000 Russians must find a new president.

September 18, 1997

PRESIDENT Boris N. Yeltsin, 66, cleared the air with his early announcement that he will not be a candidate for re-election when his second term runs out in 2000. The Russian constitution would not have enabled him to seek another term anyway, of course. But that could have been changed.

If Mr. Yeltsin completes his term, he will become the first Russian leader ever to step down in an orderly fashion. The czars never retired: They died or were overthrown.

The same was true of communist leaders. As a rule, they died in office.

Nikita S. Khrushchev was an exception. He died in officially imposed obscurity, having been deposed as the Kremlin chief. As for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union may still be a welcome celebrity speaker in much of the outside world, but at home he is mostly ignored.

Mr. Yeltsin has assured his place in history. In 1991, his support was one of the reasons Mr. Gorbachev was able to defuse an attempted palace coup. Mr. Gorbachev's subsequent helplessness signaled to Mr. Yeltsin, though, that the old order had outlived its uselessness. By the year's end, the Soviet Union had collapsed, Mr. Gorbachev had resigned and Mr. Yeltsin had ascended to the Kremlin throne.

Mr. Yeltsin's presidency has had its ups and downs. During his heavy-drinking days in the first term, his behavior was often erratic. Since his heart bypass surgery last year, his administration has been working more smoothly.

Yet Mr. Yeltsin has had no more luck than his rivals in building a viable political party. Politics in this emerging democracy tend to be highly personalized and dominated by strong individuals.

The best service Mr. Yeltsin can render is to leave behind a constitutional framework that enables Russia to develop workable political traditions and processes. His early announcement about his retirement serves that purpose and gives his countrymen ample time to consider alternatives.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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