Acting Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Tuesday that he tried to persuade Boris N. Yeltsin not to resign when the president confided two weeks ago that he planned to quit.
But according to Putin, Yeltsin had already made up his mind and insisted that his 47-year-old prime minister tell him immediately whether he would accept the post of acting president, as provided by the constitution.
"You had enough time to think about it in the past," he recalled Yeltsin saying. "Please, answer now."
In a 20-minute televised interview Tuesday, Putin gave the first detailed description of the sequence of events leading up to Yeltsin's unexpected announcement Friday that he was stepping down.
Putin acknowledged that Yeltsin's surprise move gave him a substantial advantage in the presidential campaign before a special election tentatively set for March. Yeltsin, he said, was primarily motivated by his desire to continue controlling Russia's destiny after leaving office.
"To a large extent, it is connected with the fact that he wanted the future presidential campaign to be run the way he wanted it to be run," Putin said. "He was helping me, if I may put it so. I need to say this openly--he has given me a head start in this presidential campaign. And he has done it deliberately."
Putin, a former KGB colonel, is the country's most popular politician and is considered the most likely candidate to win the special election, which must be held within 90 days of the president's resignation. Other potential candidates, caught off guard by the unexpected holiday weekend announcement, are still weighing their chances and coming up with campaign plans, while Putin has begun actively campaigning.
Putin said he didn't know whom Yeltsin talked with in reaching his decision to resign. It is widely believed that Yeltsin was persuaded to quit by the inner Kremlin circle known as "The Family," which includes Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, former Yeltsin Chief of Staff Valentin B. Yumashev and a handful of tycoons who became wealthy during Yeltsin's eight-year reign. Some regard Putin himself as a part of The Family.
"Think about it--The Family talks Grandpa into abdicating his post for the sake of a person totally unknown to them? Does this make any sense?" asked suspended Prosecutor General Yuri I. Skuratov, who was ousted by Yeltsin after opening a corruption investigation into billionaire Boris A. Berezovsky, a key Family member.
"Naturally he is part of The Family--he is its protege," Skuratov said in an interview Tuesday.
The Putin interview was broadcast by the ORT television network, which is partially owned by the government but is controlled by Berezovsky.
Putin displayed little emotion when discussing the events that led up to Yeltsin's resignation but said he almost cried when the former president departed from the Kremlin.
"It was not an easy day both for him or for all of us, but indeed, he behaved courageously," Putin recounted. "As for his last words, I was nearly moved [to tears] myself. He walked out on the porch, took a rather sad look at the windows and said he felt sad having to bid farewell to all of this, because a lot linked him to those walls, those rooms, those buildings and the people who work there.
"His words were simple: 'Take care of Russia.' "
Putin said the meeting at which Yeltsin said he would resign took place about 10 days before Yeltsin's New Year's Eve resignation speech and just after the Unity bloc backed by Putin had made a strong showing in parliamentary elections. That balloting was a key step in Putin's ascendancy because it demonstrated his popular support at the polls.