MOSCOW, DEC. 24 -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin said today that he will assume control of the strategic nuclear weapons belonging to the former Soviet Union Wednesday night after a televised resignation statement by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
The transfer of the "nuclear suitcase" that holds the codes needed for firing thousands of nuclear warheads, many of them aimed at the United States, will mark the symbolic inauguration of a new world leader and the departure of one of the key political figures of the 20th century. It also will seal the demise of the world's first Communist state and its replacement by a commonwealth of 11 independent states dominated by the vast Russian federation.
After weeks of mounting political pressure from Yeltsin and other leaders of the former Soviet republics, Gorbachev revealed his resignation plans in a farewell meeting in the Kremlin with 70 members of his personal presidential staff. A Kremlin spokesman said the 60-year-old Soviet leader, who came to power in March 1985 promising to reinvigorate the ailing Communist superpower, will make a televised resignation statement at 7 p.m. Moscow time (noon EST) on Christmas Day.
Yeltsin revealed the plans to transfer the nuclear suitcase, which weighs about three pounds and is known in Russian as the chemodanchik (little suitcase), at a meeting with Soviet newspaper editors today. He also said Gorbachev would receive an indexed pension of 4,000 rubles a month (roughly 10 times the average Soviet wage but only $40 at the current tourist rate of exchange), a Moscow apartment, a country residence, two limousines and 20 bodyguards. The pension arrangements for Gorbachev were settled by commonwealth leaders at their weekend meeting in the capital of Kazakhstan, Alma-Ata.
By taking control over the chemodanchik, Yeltsin will assume ultimate responsibility for firing nuclear missiles stationed in Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia. But a protocol signed in Alma-Ata specifies that the other nuclear states must give their consent for the weapons' use. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk told reporters on his way home from Alma-Ata that three other republics' leaders had the technical capability of blocking the use of nuclear weapons by Yeltsin.
The nuclear weapons issue is likely to resurface at a meeting Monday of commonwealth heads of state in Minsk -- the Byelorussian and commonwealth capital -- that also will consider the reorganization of the 3.7 million Soviet armed forces. Both Ukraine and Byelorussia are publicly committed to becoming nuclear-free states, while Kazakhstan is keeping its options open, apparently in the hope of wringing political and economic concessions out of Russia.
In an interview with the independent Interfax news agency this evening, Gorbachev described his departure from office as "inevitable" in view of the formation of the commonwealth, but said that he did not intend to leave the political or social arena. He said he would use his political authority to try to promote agreement and joint action among the former Soviet republics.
As Gorbachev prepared his resignation statement, Soviet commentators took stock of his 6 1/2 years in power and praised his policies of glasnost, or openness, while criticizing his mismanagement of the economy. A commentary in the mass circulation newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda said that the first and last Soviet president had "been unable to change the life of the people for the better but has changed the people themselves. This is both his drama and his achievement."
Gorbachev told the newspaper in an interview that he regretted not forming a common front with Yeltsin and other democratic politicians in the summer of 1990 against Communist Party hard-liners and had "paid dearly" for his mistake. He said that he had decided then to stay on as general secretary of the Communist Party to "manipulate" the hard-liners and prevent them from staging a coup.
"I should tell you that if they had staged a coup a year or a year and a half ago, it would have succeeded. I want you to understand this," Gorbachev said.
Gorbachev's decision to resign has effectively signed the death warrant of all the other remaining Soviet power structures, including the Soviet parliament, which is ending its existence with a whimper rather than a bang. Only several dozen lawmakers turned up to a session of the parliament's upper chamber today following a decision by Russia and several other republics to boycott the proceedings.
After a desultory debate on whether the end of the Soviet Union, which will formally take place Dec. 31, is a "tragedy" or a "comedy," the legislators decided to hold a final session on Thursday and to wind up its affairs on Jan. 2, the day the Russian government eliminates price controls. The constitutional watchdog committee and the state bank also have formally declared their self-liquidation.