About 10 days before the New Year, President Boris Yeltsin interrupted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a routine meeting and said he intended to resign to give Putin a political head start in the election campaign, Putin recalled today.
Yeltsin's decision to leave office, Putin added, was a difficult one for the 68-year-old president, who had spent nearly a decade at the highest levels of power. When Yeltsin gave up the presidency, he was sad and alarmed because he had never considered life after leading Russia, Putin said.
Putin's remarks, in an interview broadcast tonight on national television, were the first clues to the behind-the-scenes events that led to Yeltsin's unexpected announcement on New Year's Eve that he would resign six months before the end of his second term--a move that left Putin as acting president until a special election is held. On Wednesday, the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, is widely expected to schedule that election for March 26. Putin is the front-runner to be Yeltsin's successor among several likely candidates.
Putin said in the interview that he met with Yeltsin just after the legislative elections of Dec. 19. "I arrived to give him a report about economic problems, about the North Caucasus," where Russian troops are fighting Chechen rebels, he said. "But I noticed that after my first report, Yeltsin was thinking about something else."
Yeltsin interrupted Putin a few minutes later, he added, and said he had decided to resign. Putin said his reaction was "restrained" and that he tried to persuade Yeltsin he was still needed on the world stage and the political scene at home. But after a pause, Putin said, Yeltsin demanded Putin answer whether he was prepared to accept his decision.
"I said, 'The question is very important; I need to think about it,' " Putin recalled. "He said, 'You've had enough time; answer now.' " Putin said he agreed. When questioned about who might have advised Yeltsin to step down, Putin said Yeltsin "didn't say, and I didn't ask."
The reasoning behind the decision, Putin said, was "the fact that he wanted the future presidential campaign to develop the way he wanted it to develop, and he created conditions for this presidential campaign--and he helped me. He gave me a start." Yeltsin had earlier called Putin his chosen successor, and Yeltsin's inner circle has been working behind the scenes to promote Putin as the next president.
But Yeltsin acknowledged to Putin that he felt uneasy, that he might be criticized for leaving office early to boost Putin's chances. Nonetheless, Putin said Yeltsin told him: "I thought it over and made a decision, and I am going to do it."
A few days later, Putin said he urged Yeltsin to go ahead with a planned trip to Bethlehem this week, and Yeltsin agreed; he is scheduled to leave Wednesday.
Yeltsin's aides had said repeatedly that he was so wedded to power he would never give it up. Putin suggested that the decision was a traumatic one because "there is a lot that links him to these walls, to these rooms, to the people who work there. . . . Yeltsin was courageous; it was very difficult . . . a man who was here for 10 years, at the top of power."
On the Kremlin steps, before stepping into his limousine, Yeltsin spoke briefly, Putin recalled. He spoke "with some pathos, but at the same time in a very kind and human way. He said simple words: 'Take care of Russia.' "
Putin said Yeltsin quit without a notion of what he would do. "He spoke about it with sadness, even alarm, because as far as I understand, he never imagined what he would do after being president of Russia. He has no clear idea. He said to me: 'It's clear my time has come. But it isn't clear what I will do next.' "