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Russia: Yeltsin Resigns, Putin Vows to Focus on Economy

Moscow, 31 December 1999 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin says he resigned today after nine years in office because of Russia's overall problems and not because of his personal health problems. Yeltsin -- who made the dramatic announcement in a nationally televised address -- made Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acting president until new elections in March. Yeltsin asked Russians to forgive him for his mistakes and for failing to realize their dreams after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin's attempts to build a market economy were flawed by corruption, and the standard of living has decreased while crime has increased.

In his first comments as acting president, Putin said his government will focus on improving the economy and people's lives. Putin also said Russia's foreign and defense policies will remain unchanged. The popularity of the former head of the domestic security service (FSB) has soared because of the way he has handled the military campaign in Chechnya.

Putin met with Russia's Security Council shortly after taking power. The RIA news agency says Putin asked the top Russian officials to stay in their positions and work calmly.

In a later New Year's address, Putin said any actions which violate Russian laws or the country's constitution will be dealt with decisively.

He said basic elements of civilized society such as freedom of speech, of conscience, of the media and human rights will be defended by the government. Putin said branches of the military and security services were not placed on heightened alert.

The new Russian leader said Yeltsin's decision to step down was in accordance with the country's constitution. He praised Yeltsin for staying on the course toward democracy and economic reform.

Putin also signed a decree on social and security guarantees for Yeltsin and his family. Russian media say the text of the document will be made available later today.

World leaders have responded to the news of the resignation with praise for Yeltsin and expressions of hope for his country.

U.S. President Bill Clinton said that Yeltsin had a historic tenure as Russia's first democratically elected president. Clinton said he looks forward to working with acting President Putin.

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislav Geremek praised Yeltsin's contribution to Russia's democratization. Geremek said he hopes for peace in Chechnya.

Czech President Vaclav Havel said he is confident that Russia will continue on the path to democracy. Havel called Yeltsin "a politician of historic importance."

In Sofia, Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov said he hopes that Yeltsin's resignation will not affect Russian progress toward democracy nor its relationship of trust with Bulgaria.

Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykola Zhulynsky said this: "We in Ukraine must be ready for a tough dialog." Zhulynsky said the important thing for Ukraine is good relations with the Russian Federation, no matter who is president of Russia.

In Russia itself, Yeltsin opponents expressed joy at his resignation. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov called the decision good but too late. Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov said the resignation was a result of 10 years of efforts by, in Zyuganov's phrase, "Communists and patriots."