Apologizing for his failure to lead Russia into a prosperous future, President Boris N. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned Friday and handed power to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who immediately took over as acting president.
Yeltsin, 68, Russia's first democratically elected president and its leader throughout the post-Soviet era, told the nation that the time had come for a younger generation to tackle Russia's formidable economic and social problems.
"I would like to apologize for having failed to justify the hopes of the people who believed that we would be able to make a leap from the gloomy and stagnant totalitarian past to a bright, prosperous and civilized future at just one go," Yeltsin said in a strikingly personal and humble New Year's Eve speech that was televised to the nation.
In his address, Putin sought to reassure Russians that he would continue reforms made under Yeltsin.
Yeltsin's historic role in helping to bring an end to communism in 1991 has long been overshadowed by his faltering success in building a capitalist system to replace it. The high expectations that marked his early years as president have been replaced by poverty, corruption and a struggling economy.
Yeltsin said he had been "naive" to think that Russia could quickly overcome its past.
"Some problems have proved to be too complicated," he said, sitting in front of a New Year's tree and a Russian flag. "We have been making our way through mistakes and setbacks. Many people suffered dramatic tragedies. The pain suffered by all of you was filling my heart and my sleepless nights with anguish. I was racking my brain looking for an answer to what should be done to ease the lives of the people, at least a little."
The president's resignation brings to a close a tumultuous transitional era during which the threat of a Communist return has faded and Russia has engaged in two brutal wars in the separatist republic of Chechnya to prevent the breakup of the world's largest country.
Yeltsin gained worldwide fame as a champion of democracy in 1991, when he defiantly scrambled atop a tank outside the Russian parliament building to lead popular resistance to an attempted coup against then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Shortly after, he became president of an independent Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since then, eight years of economic policies that allowed corrupt privatization of national assets and created a new ruling class of oligarchs have destroyed his popularity. Yeltsin and his family members have been personally stained by scandals.
Yeltsin was sidelined for much of the last four years by health problems, including a heart attack and bypass surgery, pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer. His seeming disorientation during some public appearances prompted many to wonder about his mental state and his drinking habits. But Yeltsin has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks and said Friday that he was not quitting because of illness.
"I have resigned not for health reasons but in view of the entire combination of problems in the country," he said in a firm voice. "My place will be taken by a new generation, by a generation of people who will do more than I have done and with better results."
Timing Seen as Big Boost to Putin
The timing of Yeltsin's resignation appeared designed most of all to help Putin, 47, win election as Russia's next president. With Yeltsin's departure, a presidential election originally scheduled for June will be moved up three months, most likely to March 26. With the advantages of incumbency and a short campaign season, the already popular Putin will have a significant advantage over any rivals.
Since he was named prime minister in August, Putin has enjoyed the strong support of the Kremlin inner circle, including Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana. Some critics maintain that this group, widely known as The Family, is Russia's true ruling body and that Putin has become the group's front man. Whether he will continue to play that role now that he is the nation's leader remains to be seen.
Among Putin's first acts in his new role was to sign a decree granting Yeltsin immunity from prosecution while the retired president is at home, in his office or in his car. The decree also provides Yeltsin and his family with a pension, a residence, bodyguards, staff and other benefits.
In a separate move, Putin named Alexander S. Voloshin, Yeltsin's chief of staff and a key member of The Family, as his chief of staff.
In his own New Year's Eve speech, Putin sought to assure the public that the transfer of power poses no threat to public order or civil rights--and signals no immediate change.
Prime Minister Reassures Citizenry
"Please note there will not be a minute of power vacuum in the country," he said. "I'd like to warn that any attempts to exceed the limits of Russian laws, the limits of the Constitution of Russia, will be prevented firmly. The freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom of press, the property rights--these fundamental elements of civilized society--will be reliably protected by the state."
Putin, a former KGB agent and onetime chief of Russia's security service, will have tremendous power. He will retain the post of prime minister while serving as acting president; he also will have ultimate control of Russia's nuclear arsenal.
Yeltsin's foes had long criticized the president for his lack of leadership and urged him to resign. But the president clung to power through the worst of times. Some questioned whether he would ever give up his post voluntarily.
Yeltsin answered his critics in his speech: "I have heard it said many times that Yeltsin will do everything possible to remain in power and that he will never surrender power to anyone. All this is a lie."
Yeltsin's decision to resign was made only in the last few days, aides said, and appeared to be dictated by Putin's success in building his popularity--particularly with the strong showing of the Unity bloc, with which he is strongly affiliated, in parliamentary elections Dec. 19.
With heavy fighting continuing in Chechnya, popular support for the war could wane in coming months. A quick election would allow Putin to take advantage of the gains in popularity he has made since the war began in earnest in October.
"Already now, it is becoming more and more clear that the Chechnya campaign will be more protracted and bloody than is promised by the authorities," said Pavel I. Voshchanov, a former Yeltsin press secretary. "Putin's rating could well prove unable to survive such changes, and The Family must have decided 'Now or never.' They will never have a better opportunity to have Putin elected than today."
Long renowned for his political instincts, Yeltsin picked a day that has great emotional significance for Russians and will help link him to a moment in history as people around the world celebrated the arrival of 2000. But more important, said political analyst Andrei A. Piontkovsky, director of the Moscow-based Independent Institute for Strategic Studies, Yeltsin's timing was aimed at ensuring Putin's success.
"Since such a sentimental day as New Year's Eve happened to be available, Yeltsin decided to enhance the emotional effect his resignation would have," Piontkovsky said. "As a result, many people will now change their opinion of Yeltsin for the better and will even feel ashamed that they had hated him so much. This, in its turn, will make them want to correct their 'mistake' and vote for Putin in the presidential elections."
Clinton Lauds Progress 2 Leaders Have Made
After the resignation speech, President Clinton talked by phone with Yeltsin, who made the case that Putin will be a good leader for Russia, a White House spokesman said.
"We have had our differences, such as on Chechnya, but President Yeltsin and my starting point has always been how Russia and the United States could work together to advance common interests," Clinton told reporters later. "In this spirit, I look forward to working with acting President Putin as the Russian people begin this process of making the transition from one democratically elected president to the other."
One of their main accomplishments, Clinton said, was the "genuine progress" Russia and the United States have made in dismantling long-range nuclear weapons.
"I liked him because he was always forthright with me," Clinton said. "He always did exactly what he said he would do. And he was willing to take chances to try to improve our relationship. I liked him because he deplored communism. He lived with it, and he saw it. And I think he believed democracy was the best system."
Yeltsin's resignation prompted a jump of nearly 17% in the Russian stock market, according to one index, exceeding the limit for a one-day gain and prompting the market to shut down for the rest of the day.
Billionaire Boris A. Berezovsky, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Yeltsin's reign and a key member of his inner circle, hinted that he knew in advance of the resignation. Some say that Berezovsky, who won a seat in parliament in elections Dec. 19, orchestrated Putin's appointment in August and his designation as Yeltsin's successor.
"Yeltsin," said Berezosky, "once again proved to everybody that he is the right choice for Russia--a powerful, great and unpredictable country for everyone but us, those who were born, live and will die here."
Yeltsin, for all his difficulties in building a new Russia, said that, as he left office, he could take satisfaction from the fact that his leadership had eliminated the possibility of a return to communism.
"Seeing with what hope and faith the people voted for a new generation of politicians during the parliamentary elections, I realized that I had achieved the main goal of my life," he said. "Russia will never return to the past. Russia, from now on, will always move forward. And I must not be an obstacle to this natural course of history."
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Changes in Russian Life
Boris N. Yeltsin will be remembered, along with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, for attempting to make Russia freer and more prosperous. Here is a look at how living standards have changed since communism was abandoned:
Source: Times Moscow Bureau
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YELTSIN STEPS DOWN
MILESTONES IN HIS CAREER
1961 Joins Communist Party.
1976 Becomes first secretary of the Sverdlovsk District Central Committee.
1985 Becomes first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee (mayor of the capital).
1986 Becomes nonvoting member of the Politburo. Announces the arrest of hundreds of corrupt trade officials and advocates the abolition of special privileges for party bureaucrats.
1987 Expelled from Politburo seat in October after falling out with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Proclaims his dissatisfaction with the pace of perestroika. Hospitalized in November for heart trouble and depression. Fired by Gorbachev later that month from Moscow city leadership post.
1989 Elected to Congress of People's Deputies (new Soviet parliament) in March. Tours the United States in September.
March 1990 Elected to the Supreme Soviet (the national legislature).
May 1990 Elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet, becomes de facto president of the Russian Federation.
June 1990 Federation declares sovereignty. Yeltsin quits Communist Party.
June 1991 Wins Russia's first presidential election.
August 1991 Yeltsin emerges as nation's most powerful politician after coup attempt against Gorbachev fails.
October 1991 Outlines radical reform program, including privatizing small businesses.
November 1991 Names himself head of government, takes over duties of prime minister.
December 1991 Russia, Ukraine and Belarus form Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev resigns as Soviet Union is dissolved.
July 1993 While Yeltsin is on vacation, hard-line lawmakers roll
back some of his reforms.
September 1993 Yeltsin disbands the hard-line parliament. Hard-line lawmakers vote to impeach him. Military, police stick with Yeltsin. The hard-liners barricade themselves inside the parliament building.
October 1993 Yeltsin sends troops and tanks to put down the rebellion, attacking the Russian White House in an assault that leaves scores dead.
December 1993 A new constitution is approved, giving sweeping powers to the president and guaranteeing private property and individual rights.
1994 Yeltsin sends troops into Chechnya, vowing to quell its independence bid and restore law and order to the separatist republic.
July 1995 Yeltsin is hospitalized with heart condition.
October 1995 In a threefold increase from 1992, 36% of Russia's working population is employed in the private sector. Yeltsin visits U.S. for summit.
April 1996 Belarus and Russia sign a treaty on political, economic and military cooperation, seen as a step toward resurrecting the Soviet Union.
July 1996 Yeltsin wins reelection as president with 54% of vote.
August 1996 Then-security advisor Alexander I. Lebed and Chechen rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov sign a peace agreement for with-drawing Russian troops from the separatist region.
November 1996 Yeltsin has open-heart surgery.
1997 The last Russian combat units leave Chechnya but not before as many as 80,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the war. Yeltsin is hospitalized with double pneumonia.
March 1998 Yeltsin chooses Sergei V. Kiriyenko, a little-known technocrat, as new prime minister, after firing Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.
August 1998 Yeltsin ousts Kiriyenko, days after his Cabinet defaulted on some debts and devalued the national currency, setting off an economic crisis.
November 1998 Yeltsin enters hospital with pneumonia.
January 1999 Yeltsin is rushed to hospital with bleeding ulcer.
May 1999 Yeltsin fires Yevgeny M. Primakov as prime minister and names Sergei V. Stepashin as replacement.
August 1999 Yeltsin sacks Stepashin, names little-known security chief Vladimir V. Putin as new prime minister, says he wants Putin to succeed him as president.
September 1999 After clashes in Dagestan and a series of bomb blasts in Russian cities, Russia sends troops into Chechnya.
December 1999 Putin's supporters perform surprisingly well in parliamentary elections. Yeltsin resigns, names Putin acting president.
Born: Feb. 1, 1931, in Butka, U.S.S.R.
Education: Degree in engineering from Urals Polytechnic Institute, 1955
Personal: Eldest of three children; he and his wife, Naina Yosefovna, have two daughters and five grandchildren.
* WHITE HOUSE REACTION
President Clinton and advisors stressed that continuity is key to the Russian succession. A14