With the world focused on celebrating the passage into the year 2000, the announcement by the mercurial Boris Yeltsin that he was taking immediate leave of his presidential duties stunned many leaders who had become convinced he was more likely to die in office.
Some governments withheld comment for several hours until they could confirm the sincerity of Yeltsin's words. When it became clear that Yeltsin was serious about quitting on the last day of the 20th century, eulogies poured forth from capitals around the globe.
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed "the world is more stable and more secure" as a result of Yeltsin's eight years in power. "Boris Yeltsin has played a crucial role in the history of Russia. He has steered his country through a most difficult and painful transition from communism to democracy," Blair said.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he now "expects the war in Chechnya and the suffering of the people will come to a speedy end, and will clear away the growing sense of crisis that has burdened Russia's relations with us and the world." Successor Vladimir Putin "will face difficult decisions as interim president, but he also has the chance for a new beginning," the German leader said.
French President Jacques Chirac paid tribute to Yeltsin's "tenacious will" in steering Russia away from its authoritarian past toward a new era of free speech, open markets and democratic elections. But he also delivered an impassioned appeal, in a separate letter to Putin, for a fresh start in Moscow's dealings with the West.
"I am convinced in this period of transition that is so important for the Russian people that you will be able to act in favor of return to peace, to the deepening of democracy and the pursuit of indispensable reforms," Chirac wrote.
Russia's neighbors also lauded Yeltsin's efforts to establish more relaxed frontiers. Poland's foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek extolled his contributions in "overcoming the difficult legacy of Polish--Russian history and normalizing relations."
On the eastern front, Chinese President Jiang Zemin thanked Yeltsin for forging a "strategic partnership" with China and pledged to work with his successor.
"I commend you highly for the historical contributions you've made for the development of our countries' relations," the official New China News Agency quoted Jiang as saying in his letter to Yeltsin.
Japan's prime minister Keizo Obuchi said he regretted Yeltsin's inability to sign a formal peace treaty but hoped his successor would resolve a territorial dispute over four islands off northern Japan by the end of 2000 that would formally end World War II hostilities.
Among the newly independent republics that once formed the Soviet Union, there was generous praise for Yeltsin's friendship and fervent aspirations that Russia will remain a peaceful neighbor. Ukraine's president Leonid Kuchma described Yeltsin's decision as "a courageous and logical step" and said he is confident Putin will continue building "a new strategic partnership" between Moscow and Kiev.
Georgia's president Eduard Shevardnadze hailed Yeltsin as a historical figure and said "he made a unique contribution to the democratic transformation and development of Russia."