Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 1

The New Year ended with Russia–who else?–providing the biggest millennium celebration surprise. Boris Yeltsin’s resignation caught most people in and outside Russia off guard, and certainly gave credence to fans of “the first Russian president,” as he is now officially called, who had always argued that Yeltsin would, in the end, abdicate peacefully and thereby ensure a democratic transition. And, on the face of it, he did just that. Indeed, all the rumors which had swept Moscow’s rumor mill throughout 1999 that Yeltsin and his inner circle would either cancel presidential elections or get around them through one trick or another–such as the union with neighboring Belarus–could now be dismissed. Yeltsin’s move earned nearly universal applause from both Russians–who were glad to see a physically intact, “energetic” leader take the helm–and from Western leaders, who felt vindicated in having put their faith in “the father of Russian democracy.”

But like most everything that happens in Russia, things were less clear on closer inspection. While the Kremlin’s image makers proudly trumpeted Yeltsin’s move as the final spontaneous act of a mercurial yet instinctively democratic leader, it quickly became clear that Tsar Boris’s final act was less than an off-the-cuff grand gesture. His successor, acting President Vladimir Putin, said in an interview broadcast on Boris Berezovsky’s Russian Public Television that Yeltsin had told him of his plans earlier in December. Putin also admitted that Yeltsin’s move was designed to help him by moving up presidential elections by three months. Some observers, in fact, suspected that Yeltsin’s move might not have been entirely “voluntary,” and pointed to acting President Putin’s first decree, giving the outgoing president life-long immunity from criminal prosecution. Newsweek magazine reported that Yeltsin’s decision had been taken on December 24. It also said that Swiss prosecutors investigating alleged money laundering by a number of top Russian officials had found twelve bank accounts, holding US$15 million, which were linked to Yeltsin. Also on December 24, Ruslan Tamayev, the prosecutor leading the investigation into whether Kremlin officials received bribes from the Swiss construction firm Mabetex, announced that he was extending the probe for six months to allow a detailed review of the presidential administration’s finances.

Such information gave ammunition to those who suspected that the Kremlin “Family”–most notably, Berezovsky and his associate, Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin–might have made the ailing president an offer he couldn’t refuse. A “well-informed Russian political source” told Agence France Presse: “What has happened here can be held up as an orderly and legal transfer of executive power … What it is in reality is a textbook palace coup d’etat.” Whatever the case, Yeltsin’s resignation, on closer inspection, looked less like “an impulsive, bold move” designed to “turn Russia toward a more promising future,” as the New York Times hailed it, then a move pungent with “the sour odor of a cooked deal,” as the Washington Post pithily noted. Indeed, the resignation guaranteed there would be no direct transfer of power from one democratically elected leader to another.