Yeltsin Resigns: 'I Did All I Could'

By David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 1, 2000

MOSCOW, Dec. 31 -- President Boris Yeltsin, who led Russia out of the final throes of Soviet communism into a chaotic new world of democracy and a market economy, resigned unexpectedly today and appealed for "forgiveness because many of our hopes have not come true."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became acting president under Russia's constitution. The constitution also requires early presidential elections to be held within three months, and officials said they probably will take place on March 26.

Putin, the hard-nosed former KGB agent who has prosecuted Russia's war against separatist rebels in Chechnya, is Yeltsin's chosen successor. Polls show he is the overwhelming favorite to succeed Yeltsin, but others are also planning to run.

"Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, new faces, new intelligent, strong and energetic people," Yeltsin, 68, said in a televised address. "And for those of us who have been in power for many years, we must go."

Referring to Putin, 47, Yeltsin asked rhetorically, "Why should I stand in his way? Why wait for another six months?"

Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president, was due to step down after his second term ended in June. His first term began in 1991 while Russia was still part of the Soviet Union.

In a brief handover, he watched as Putin received the special control suitcase with electronic gear used for monitoring a possible nuclear attack. After Yeltsin's departure, Putin signed an order giving him immunity from prosecution, as well as guaranteeing him a security detail, medical care and other benefits.

The resignation surprised leaders around the world, many of whom praised Yeltsin's support for democratic reforms but criticized his handling of the war in Chechnya.

President Clinton praised Yeltsin's "lasting achievement" in building democratic political institutions, but noted, "We have also had our differences, such as on Chechnya."

One explanation for Yeltsin's timing, analysts said, was the parliamentary election two weeks ago in which a new party closely allied with Putin grabbed the second-largest vote for the lower house, the State Duma. The results reflected Putin's commanding political position, and Kremlin strategists may have calculated that now would be the best time to call a presidential election.

Another factor may be Yeltsin's health, which has been declining for years. He has sometimes appeared disoriented in public, underwent quintuple coronary artery bypass surgery in late 1996, and has suffered several difficult respiratory illnesses and a bleeding ulcer since then.

Yeltsin failed to appear Thursday night at a Kremlin reception marking the turn of the century. This morning he arrived in his Kremlin office, signed the Russian budget and a law on presidential elections, and then submitted his resignation.

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