After eight years in office as the first president of an independent Russia, Boris Yeltsin chose the final day of 1999 to resign. His health had been poor for many years, but virtually no observers inside or outside Russia had expected that he would voluntarily relinquish power.
The odds-on successor to Yeltsin is the prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who has taken over as acting president. In the past four months, Putin has achieved remarkably high popularity ratings in a country that usually regards its politicians with great cynicism. Putin will face one or two strong challengers, but unless something goes drastically wrong between now and the time presidential elections are held in March, he will almost certainly win by a wide margin.
Politically, Yeltsin achieved a good deal. Although Russia is not yet close to being a liberal democracy, the country is vastly better off than it was during the many years of Soviet dictatorship. Three sets of parliamentary elections have been held since the early 1990s, and a second presidential election will be held next year. (Yeltsin's resignation means the election will be held a few months earlier than scheduled.) For the first time in its history, Russia will experience a peaceful transfer of executive power.
The advent of regular, free elections has been accompanied by the emergence of a lively press. Although Russia's law on state secrets hinders the media, and although many journalists are beholden to corporate interests, state censorship is no longer a serious issue in Russia. For that, Yeltsin deserves much credit.
There is little indication that Putin will seek to reverse these political accomplishments. Although Putin made his career in the Soviet KGB and its successor agency, he has displayed no inclination to do away with elections or to reimpose state control of the press. One of the most heartening results of the Yeltsin era is that all politicians of any standing in Russia--with the possible exception of the Communists--now accept free elections and an independent press as the only acceptable means of running the country. Even the Communists compete avidly in elections.
Against Yeltsin's political achievements, his economic record is dim. For a few months after taking office at the end of 1991, he pursued a radical economic program. But in the early spring of 1992, he made the momentous decision to back away, and Russia has been paying the cost ever since.
Given the onerous economic situation Yeltsin inherited from the Soviet regime, it would have been difficult for anyone to turn the economy around. But the ill-considered, half-hearted reforms that Yeltsin ended up pursuing made things worse. During his tenure, corruption and criminality pervaded the Russian economy, and millions of workers and pensioners went for months without being paid.
This economic legacy will pose a formidable challenge for Putin. He has no background in market economics, and he has been relatively subdued in his statements about economic policy since taking over as prime minister in August.
Nonetheless, there are grounds for optimism. Russia's economy in 1999 began to show the first signs of a tentative recovery from the crash of August 1998. That circumstance, combined with Putin's soaring popularity ratings, should give the new president a substantial window of opportunity to adopt the radical reforms that Yeltsin was never willing to undertake. This window may not be open long, but Putin's decisiveness as prime minister and his astute approach to politics will work to his advantage. Russia may be able to return to the bold reform program that Yeltsin abandoned in early 1992.
Putin's willingness to back the pro-market party known as the Union of Right Forces in the recent parliamentary elections gives further reason for hope about his economic policies. Although it would have been better if the Yabloko party had gained more of the vote, the Union of Right Forces is the next-best alternative. Together with the Unity party that Putin sponsored, the Union of Right Forces may be able to craft a genuinely workable program that will put Russia on the path of true market reform.
Both economically and politically, then, Yeltsin's departure should be good for Russia. Even on the question of Chechnya, it is unlikely that Yeltsin's departure will make things worse. Yeltsin himself vehemently supported both the current war and the tragic conflict against Chechnya in 1994-1996, in which tens of thousands died. It is troubling that Putin's popularity in Russia has risen mainly because of his decisiveness in overseeing the destruction of Chechnya, but there is no indication that Russian policy toward Chechnya would be any different if Yeltsin stayed in office.
On balance, Yeltsin's resignation should bode well for everyone who wants to see liberal democracy and a prosperous market economy in Russia. Those goals will not be accomplished any time soon, but Yeltsin's departure should make the future brighter for Russia.
The writer is the director of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies.