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Russia: Analysis - Yeltsin Resignation Fits Legacy

With his resignation today, Russian President Boris Yeltsin caught his countrymen and the world by surprise. But RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that the move is very much in keeping with Yeltsin's political legacy.

Moscow, 31 December 1999 (NCA/Sophie Lambroschini) -- By chosing to resign ahead of presidential elections initially planned for June, Boris Yetsin's public message was that it was time for a new generation of leaders.

Yeltsin: "Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, new faces, new intelligent, strong and energetic people. As for those of us who have been in power for many years, we must go. Seeing with what hope and belief people voted during the Duma elections for a new generation of politicians, I understood that I had done the main job of my life. Russia will never return to the past. Russia will now always be moving forward. I must not stand in its way, in the way of the natural progress of history."

But some analysts say that in reality, the moment was chosen as the most favourable to ensure that his anointed heir, Vladimir Putin, will succeed him, though in a way that still respects formal legalities. With today's act, Yeltsin demonstratively swept away all the speculation about his intention of staying on in an authoritarian manner. In his parting speech, he pointedly referred to this, saying that he had often heard suggestions that he would hold on to power "by all means". He called such speculation a lie.

Now, indeed the change at the head of the Russian state is expected to follow the constitutionally established path. In case of the president leaving his post prematurely, new elections are to be held in a course of three months. In the meantime, Prime Minister Putin is acting president with most of the powers of head of state.

But some analysts argue today's move actually reveals the limited hold of true democratic principles in Russia. Carnegie analyst Nikolai Petrov is among them. He says Yeltsin and his circle have proved themselves masters in using the techniques of democratic institutions to secure power of an authoritarian nature.

Petrov: "In principle maybe this regime isn't that far away from democracy in some of its manifestations. But the [main] thing is that by its logic, by the Constitution, by its internal workings, it made it possible to go over to an authoritarian system of rule without even violating the Constitution."

Petrov and other analysts say that by leaving unexpectedly, Yeltsin makes sure that the next presidential elections planned for March 26 will give opposition candidates less of a chance. In effect they have only a few weeks to collect one million signatures, and find the financial resources to lead a campaign.

Petrov points out that in effect, because of recent parliamentary elections leaving Russia with a half-formed parliament, Putin the prime minister, the president, and the candidate is playing all alone on the political field.

Petrov: "If we speak about the transformation of the regime, it's evident that the moment is well chosen. [Now, Yeltsin's circle] can use the smoothly working system they set up and exploit the very good results for the Kremlin during elections. It's a manner of strengthening their victory by not giving those opposition political forces who were broken or weakened after parliamentry elections even a chance to regroup. Announcing early elections gave everyone except the party of power's candidate two months to prepare. It's the beginning of a dead political [season] where there isn't even a Duma.

Andrei Piontkovsky, another political analyst, also points out that by having Yeltsin resign now, he was minimizing any political risks to Putin linked to the war in Chechnya.

Piontkovsky: "This act is a completely technical decision based on the [Yeltsin circles'] desire to get Putin elected. For now, it seems that they think that he is their only guarantee of political financial and maybe physical survival. So they had to do everything to help [him]. And since Putin's whole campaign was built on the war in Chechnya, it's a lot easier to sell the image of a [military] victory for three months than for six months."

Other analysts note that Yeltsin's decision has postponed for Russia for several years one of the watersheds in any young democracy -- the first instance when one elected head of state peacefully hands over power to an elected successor.