Eight years after the collapse of Soviet rule, where is Russia now? The coming to power of an unelected secret policeman, whose claim to competence is a civil war brutally waged and falsely reported, is received with relief at home and optimism abroad. That is the measure of Boris Yeltsin’s failure.
Many in the West called Yeltsin’s resignation “spontaneous.” If so, it was spontaneous as in “spontaneous demonstration.” You don’t need a degree in conspiracy theory to put together an account of events that is far more plausible than the “impulsive, bold move” described by The New York Times. Though the full story may never be known, Yeltsin’s departure seems to have been well planned and crisply executed by the Kremlin’s power brokers.
New Acting President Vladimir Putin admitted to a television interviewer that Yeltsin’s resignation was intended to improve Putin’s electoral chances by elevating him in office and advancing the election date from June 4 to March 26 to choke off the opposition’s time to respond. Conceivably this was Yeltsin’s idea. More likely the group of oligarchs and cronies that feared seeing the presidency pass to Putin’s main rival, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, decided it was time for Yeltsin to go. The president, in failing health and with visibly waning mental powers, was in no position to resist–especially if confronted with the threat of prosecution.
Boris Yeltsin had conducted a long campaign to close down the multiple investigations into his affairs and those of his literal and political family. He repeatedly dismissed Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, only to have the parliament’s upper house repeatedly reject the dismissals. Unreachable Swiss prosecutors were on the trail of laundered money, kickbacks and secret accounts in Geneva, and American and British investigators were looking into the billions of dollars that flowed through Russian accounts at the Bank of New York and other institutions.
Vladimir Putin unquestionably had access to detailed information on the investigation and on the activities in question. He came to Moscow in 1996 as an aide to Yeltsin bagman and confidant Pavel Borodin, a central target of the Swiss investigation. Yeltsin named Putin head of the Federal Security Service, the principal successor agency to the Soviet KGB, in 1998. While promising cooperation to Western investigators, Putin was also in charge of developing information to discredit Yuri Skuratov and staff.
On December 24, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced a six-month extension of the probe into Swiss kickbacks to Kremlin officials and a detailed review of the Kremlin’s administrative finances. On December 31, Yeltsin resigned, making Putin the acting president. That same day, Putin signed a decree giving Yeltsin and members of his family lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution.