Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 1

A conventional wisdom seems to be emerging that Russia’s first democratically elected head of state spontaneously stepped down on the eve of the new millennium in order, as Yeltsin himself said in his resignation speech, to ensure a smooth transition to a new generation of politicians. “Mr. Yeltsin,” as the New York Times put it, “for one last time, seemed to be betting that an impulsive, bold move would turn Russia toward a more promising future” (New York Times, January 2). While this view of Yeltsin’s New Year’s Eve resignation is undoubtedly what the Kremlin’s myth-makers wanted to get across–and seems to have been wholeheartedly accepted by world leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton–it is unlikely that Yeltsin was primarily motivated by a concern for democratic principles and his historical legacy. In fact, Yeltsin’s pre-term resignation means that Russia will not, as hoped, see one democratically elected leader directly transfer power to another. Indeed, the move, as the Washington Post aptly noted, has injected “the sour odor of a cooked deal into democratic Russia’s first transition” (Washington Post, January 1). What is more, Yeltsin’s resignation was in all likelihood not a personal decision at all, but rather a consensus decision of some or all of Russia’s power brokers. Put another way, Yeltsin was most likely helped along in his leap into retirement–or even, perhaps, pushed.

The reasons why the power brokers would have wanted to get Yeltsin off the political stage ASAP are clear enough. First, his physical and mental health seemed to be deteriorating rapidly, as was evident during the December 9 Russia-Belarus Union treaty-signing ceremony in the Kremlin, when he appeared disoriented and lost his balance, and in his anti-U.S. saber-rattling the next day during a meeting with Chinese leader Li Peng in Beijing. Second, and more important, they must have felt it necessary to capitalize sooner rather than later on the popularity which Vladimir Putin and his political instrument, the Unity Party, had gained from the Chechen war, given that the Chechen rebels were putting up much stronger resistance than anticipated. The presidential election will probably be held March 26, and military sources were quoted as saying that they plan to have the military operation completed by precisely that date (Russian agencies, January 1). In other words, a March election will give the Russian army enough time to drive the rebels out of the Chechen capital and allow Putin to declare victory before the rebels can regroup for the inevitable protracted guerrilla war.

While it is impossible to say with certainty that Yeltsin was made an offer he couldn’t refuse, there are some hints of this. The first is the decree Putin signed on December 31–his first decree as acting head of state–granting Yeltsin and his family full life-long immunity from criminal prosecution. Not only does this suggest that Yeltsin’s resignation was far from the “impulsive, bold move” conjured up by the New York Times’ editorial board, it also strongly suggests that Yeltsin had something to fear. Indeed, Yeltsin may have been presented with two sets of documents–one outlining the immunity deal and the other privileges he would receive upon resignation, the other outlining what he would be prosecuted for if he refused to step down with alacrity. It is worth noting that Ruslan Tamayev, the prosecutor in charge of the investigation into whether Kremlin officials received bribes from the Swiss construction firm Mabetex, announced on December 24 that he had decided to extend the probe for six months, so that investigators could conduct a detailed review of the presidential administration’s finances (Moscow Times, December 28). According to numerous press reports in Russia and the West over the last year, Kremlin “property manager” Pavel Borodin–a long-time Yeltsin associate–and other top Kremlin officials allegedly received kickbacks from Mabetex in return for lucrative contracts to refurbish Russian government buildings, including Yeltsin’s old office in the Kremlin. Some media alleged last year that Mabetex provided Yeltsin and his two daughters with credit cards. It is entirely likely that investigators uncovered much more than what has been leaked, and that this material was tucked away for future political use. Indeed, Newsweek is reporting this week that a dozen bank accounts frozen by Swiss authorities last year and containing more than US$15 million are suspected of being linked to Yeltsin. The magazine is also quoting informed sources as saying Yeltsin made his decision to step down on December 24–the same day it was announced that the Mabetex investigation had been extended for six months (Reuters, January 2).

Acting President Putin, it should be noted, first worked as one of Borodin’s assistants in 1996 after then Kremlin administration chief Anatoly Chubais brought him from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Putin then became head of the presidential administration’s control department, and then became head of the Federal Security Service. All of these posts gave him excellent access to “kompromat” (compromising material). Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin, whom Putin re-appointed as presidential chief of staff over the weekend, has also had access to such material. Voloshin is a long-time associate of the tycoon Boris Berezovsky.