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Russian's Surprise Move Gives Power to Putin

Leader who helped end communism apologizes for economic failures. Premier immediately takes reins.


MOSCOW — Apologizing for his failure to lead Russia into a prosperous future, President Boris N. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned Friday and handed power to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who immediately took over as acting president.

Yeltsin, 68, Russia's first democratically elected president and its leader throughout the post-Soviet era, told the nation that the time had come for a younger generation to tackle Russia's formidable economic and social problems.

"I would like to apologize for having failed to justify the hopes of the people who believed that we would be able to make a leap from the gloomy and stagnant totalitarian past to a bright, prosperous and civilized future at just one go," Yeltsin said in a strikingly personal and humble New Year's Eve speech that was televised to the nation.

In his address, Putin sought to reassure Russians that he would continue reforms made under Yeltsin.

Yeltsin's historic role in helping to bring an end to communism in 1991 has long been overshadowed by his faltering success in building a capitalist system to replace it. The high expectations that marked his early years as president have been replaced by poverty, corruption and a struggling economy.

Yeltsin said he had been "naive" to think that Russia could quickly overcome its past.

"Some problems have proved to be too complicated," he said, sitting in front of a New Year's tree and a Russian flag. "We have been making our way through mistakes and setbacks. Many people suffered dramatic tragedies. The pain suffered by all of you was filling my heart and my sleepless nights with anguish. I was racking my brain looking for an answer to what should be done to ease the lives of the people, at least a little."

The president's resignation brings to a close a tumultuous transitional era during which the threat of a Communist return has faded and Russia has engaged in two brutal wars in the separatist republic of Chechnya to prevent the breakup of the world's largest country.

Yeltsin gained worldwide fame as a champion of democracy in 1991, when he defiantly scrambled atop a tank outside the Russian parliament building to lead popular resistance to an attempted coup against then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Shortly after, he became president of an independent Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since then, eight years of economic policies that allowed corrupt privatization of national assets and created a new ruling class of oligarchs have destroyed his popularity. Yeltsin and his family members have been personally stained by scandals.

Yeltsin was sidelined for much of the last four years by health problems, including a heart attack and bypass surgery, pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer. His seeming disorientation during some public appearances prompted many to wonder about his mental state and his drinking habits. But Yeltsin has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks and said Friday that he was not quitting because of illness.

"I have resigned not for health reasons but in view of the entire combination of problems in the country," he said in a firm voice. "My place will be taken by a new generation, by a generation of people who will do more than I have done and with better results."

Timing Seen as Big Boost to Putin

The timing of Yeltsin's resignation appeared designed most of all to help Putin, 47, win election as Russia's next president. With Yeltsin's departure, a presidential election originally scheduled for June will be moved up three months, most likely to March 26. With the advantages of incumbency and a short campaign season, the already popular Putin will have a significant advantage over any rivals.

Since he was named prime minister in August, Putin has enjoyed the strong support of the Kremlin inner circle, including Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana. Some critics maintain that this group, widely known as The Family, is Russia's true ruling body and that Putin has become the group's front man. Whether he will continue to play that role now that he is the nation's leader remains to be seen.

Among Putin's first acts in his new role was to sign a decree granting Yeltsin immunity from prosecution while the retired president is at home, in his office or in his car. The decree also provides Yeltsin and his family with a pension, a residence, bodyguards, staff and other benefits.

In a separate move, Putin named Alexander S. Voloshin, Yeltsin's chief of staff and a key member of The Family, as his chief of staff.

In his own New Year's Eve speech, Putin sought to assure the public that the transfer of power poses no threat to public order or civil rights--and signals no immediate change.

Prime Minister Reassures Citizenry

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