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Russia: Analysis - Reasons Behind Yeltsin's Resignation

  • Floriana Fossato

Boris Yeltsin today made the announcement that his political foes have been hoping to hear for a long time. He resigned as Russian president. However, the circumstances of Yeltsin's decision -- the victory of pro-Kremlin parties in the recent parliamentary vote, the mostly positive, for the moment, devlopments of the war in Chechnya -- clearly indicate that Yeltsin did not decide to resign because of pressure from his opponents. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato examines the possible motivations behind Yeltsin's surprise move.

London, 31 December 1999 (NCA/Floriana Fossato) -- Calls for Russian President Boris Yeltsin's resignation have been common since the heart operation that followed his last re-election in the Summer of 1996.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and many commentators in the West and in Russia have reacted to Yeltsin's many illnesses and to the political and financial scandals of recent years by saying it was time for Yeltsin to go.

But the 68-year-old Russian president always dismissed the calls, saying he wanted to lead a democratic Russia into the 21 century. That is, until this morning, when he made his surprise announcement.

Yeltsin: "Dear friends, my dear ones, today I am wishing you New Year greetings for the last time. But that is not all. Today I am addressing you for the last time as Russian president. I have made a decision. I have contemplated this long and hard. Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I am retiring."

Following Yeltsin's final piece of high political theatre, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin becomes acting president and presidential elections will take place at the end of March, instead of June.

Yeltsin is a man who has long enjoyed surprising his political enemies. One of the main reasons why he was able to stay in power despite adverse circumstances in Soviet and post-Soviet times is that he believes attack is the best form of defense. He has seldom hesitated before using this technique, at times ruthlessly, against his enemies. And it has, by and large, paid off.

Today, again, Yeltsin chose to attack before he -- or rather his entourage -- risked losing the clear advantage gained as a result of the December 19 parliamentary vote and of what has so far been a largely successful military operation in Chechnya.

Yeltsin had made it sufficiently clear in the last year that he would not give up his grip on power until he was sure the transfer would mean that a man he trusted would become the next Russian president. It is widely believed that one reason for the staunch opposition of the so-called "family" surrounding Yeltsin to the presidential ambitions of Luzhkov, Zyuganov and particularly of former prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has been that none would give guarantees of a peaceful and prosperous future for Yeltsin and of his entourage.

Former secret service (FSB) head Putin, hand-picked by the Kremlin only a few months ago, seems to offer that guarantee. And the way Putin's government has been conducting military operations in Chechnya appealed to the Russian public to the extent that in a matter of months he was transformed into Russia's most popular politician.

The political parties endorsed by Putin -- including "Unity," the new 'party-of-power' created by Kremlin strategists with the goal of siphoning votes off from the Communists and Luzhkov and Primakov's "Fatherland-All Russia" bloc, posted a surprisingly strong result on December 19. This should allow the government to better control the Duma. The campaign in Chechnya, despite recent reports of Russian Army losses in the fight with Chechen militants for control of the capital, Grozny, is perceived by the Russian public as not only legitimate, but also victorious so far. This background looks rather favorable for the Kremlin and for Putin's presidential bid.

Following Yeltsin's announcement today, RFE/RL spoke with several Moscow-based analysts who spoke on condition of anonymity. Some told RFE/RL that Kremlin strategists may have worried about possible complications if the presidential election was held as scheduled in June.

According to one of the analysts, there are intertwining factors that together could have motivated Yeltsin's move. The first is Chechnya. Most Russian military experts have raised doubts that military operations could continue in the same "victorious" way until June. According to the military experts, as Chechen militants organize themselves in partisan groups based in hideouts in the mountains of southern Chechnya, it will become increasingly difficult for Russian forces to maintain their present progress.

However, the experts point out that the on-going offensive in Grozny, where heavy fighting is being reported and air-strikes on Chechen positions are continuing, could have a positive outcome for the Russian Army. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has said he expects the offensive to come to an end in the next weeks.

Russian control of Grozny, says one analyst, would allow Putin's government to declare victory over the Chechens in the next two months. And he added that, "riding this wave, Putin would easily enter the Kremlin on a white horse."

But this, agree all the analysts, has to happen soon. If the Chechen campaign stagnates or turns against Russian forces, Putin's popularity ratings could start falling between now and June.

The often rapidly changing fates of Russian politicians can be seen in what has happened to Primakov this last year. Until the Summer he was the darling of the Russian public. But during the recent campaign for the Duma, thanks largely to a vicious campaign launched against him and Luzhkov by media controlled either by the state or by Kremlin insiders, Primakov's popularity fell dramatically.

So the power of the media in Russia -- used to sling mud at one's political opponents -- was once again made evident. This brings us to another factor possibly behind Yeltsin's decision.

Moscow is full of rumors that Primakov's side is preparing a new campaign of compromising materials -- this time against Putin -- that would reportedly start soon on media outlets controlled by Kremlin opponents. One analyst says that Kremlin strategist may have come to the conclusion that, if this media campaign and setbacks in Chechnya came together at the same time, they would run too great a risk of losing the presidency to their opponents.