Yeltsin resigns, stunning nation yet another time

'Forgive me' for hopes unrealized, an ailing Russian leader asks

Putin is handed the reins

A sudden conclusion to turbulent years

January 01, 2000|By Kathy Lally and Will England | Kathy Lally and Will England,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Weakened physically and faltering politically, Boris N. Yeltsin shocked his nation yesterday by resigning as Russia's president, ceding his powers to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, a former KGB official whom Yeltsin only recently elevated from obscurity.

Yeltsin informed the nation of his decision in a television address at noon, broadcast from his office. His message was full of regret.

"I want to ask you for forgiveness," he said, speaking deliberately and pausing for emphasis. "I want to ask you for forgiveness, because many of our hopes have not come true, because what we thought would be easy turned out to be painfully difficult.

"I ask to forgive me for not fulfilling some hopes of those people who believed that we would be able to jump from the gray, stagnating, totalitarian past into a bright, rich and civilized future."

Yeltsin, who many believe cared about his legacy as the guarantor of democracy, ensured an orderly transition of power by turning over the presidency to Putin, who has never stood for elective office but is the person Yeltsin favored as his successor.

Immediately after his appointment as acting president, Putin signed a decree guaranteeing Yeltsin immunity from arrest, interrogation and search of his property.

In the suddenness of his departure, Yeltsin astonished the nation as he had done before, whether by dissolving the Soviet Union or dismissing one popular prime minister after another -- his record being five new governments in just over one year.

Yeltsin's announcement came on New Year's Eve, for Russians a holiday with all the resonance of a Western Christmas and New Year's Eve combined.

It was shocking even against a political landscape well marked by rumors of intrigue. It was shocking even though some analysts have been consistently predicting Yeltsin would, indeed, resign.

Even as some forecast his resignation, others declared that he would never leave office until carried out, that a pretext would surely be found to cancel elections scheduled for June, when his four-year term would expire.

Yeltsin said he was not resigning for reasons of health, although in the past few years he has more often been ailing than well.

Instead, the 68-year-old president said, the dawning of a new century was the time to invoke new, younger leadership. He called on Russians to support Putin, who is 47, as acting president and to vote for him in special presidential elections, which are scheduled for March 26.

`I am leaving'

"I am leaving," Yeltsin said. " A new generation is taking my place, the generation of those who can do more and do it better.

"In accordance with the constitution, as I go into retirement, I have signed a decree entrusting the duties of the president of Russia to Prime Minister Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

"For the next three months, again in accordance with the constitution, he will be head of state. Presidential elections will be held in three months' time."

The announcement came while while the nation is at war in Chechnya. Putin, who is strongly identified with pursuit of the fighting, is expected to carry on economic reforms already under way.

Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Studies, began predicting Yeltsin's resignation in September, a month after the president appointed Putin as prime minister and urged Russians to consider him as their next president.

"He cut his election campaign from six months to three months," Piontkovsky said yesterday. "Knowing Yeltsin, it took a great deal of persuasion to get him to agree to leave office. The only one capable of doing that is his daughter Tatyana."

Piontkovsky said he believed that Tatyana Yeltsin Dyachenko persuaded her father that installing Putin as acting president would assure Putin's presidential election.

Advantage over opponents

As an incumbent, he will be a prohibitive favorite over his likely opponents: Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister; Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader; Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal member of parliament; and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant nationalist.

None did well in the December elections.

Though Yeltsin is known to love power and loathed the idea of relinquishing it, his daughter must have persuaded him it was the only way he could protect himself and his family, Piontkovsky said.

Because Putin's popularity rests on success in the Chechen war, that step had to be taken now, Piontkovsky said.

"It's a very shrewd tactical step in Putin's presidential campaign," Piontkovsky said. "A successful campaign rests on his ability to project success in Chechnya on the television screen. It would be difficult to project that success for six months."

Putin became prime minister in August shortly after Islamic rebels moved out from Chechnya and seized villages in neighboring Da- gestan. Within weeks Russian forces had driven the rebels back into their home territory, at which point Putin changed the focus of the fighting to Chechnya itself.

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