Yeltsin's Last Surprise

MOSCOW: The hardest thing about power is knowing when to let go. The next hardest, particularly in a country like Russia which has experienced nothing but dictatorship for a millennium, is knowing whom to hand over power to. In announcing his resignation on December 31 Boris Yeltsin may have succeeded on both counts, assuring not only his personal safety, but his place in history and Russia's infant democracy.

Yeltsin was more than the man who saved Russia in 1991 when a coup by communist hard-liners threatened to turn back the clock by nullifying Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost. In nine muddy years since then Yeltsin also created a new Russia, very much in his own image: one unpredictable, wayward, but full of promise. By stepping down now, Yeltsin has given his handpicked successor, acting president Vladimir Putin, the best chance to win elections that will take place this coming March.

Shades of Kremlin tsars and commissars of old? As a deft manoeuvrer of the old school of communist politics, the gibe is tempting to apply to Yeltsin. It is also unfair. With mandatory presidential elections next year, Moscow was awash in rumours: “feeding time at the zoo” as one British prime minister called it. By ending the whispering campaign that he intended to cling to power no matter what, President Yeltsin deserves more cheers than jeers. Through this orderly and constitutionally correct device to attempt to assure his succession, Yeltsin may have put paid to any possibility of a chaotic power struggle in the Kremlin without sacrificing democratic principles. Russia may now go on to complete its transition from communism to capitalism.

But what do we know of the heir apparent, Vladimir Putin? In keeping with his shadowy KGB background, very little. Putin is a married 46 year old, and a graduate of Saint Petersburg University's Law Faculty. Stationed for a decade as a KGB agent in the former East Germany, he saw Western democratic and business practices at close hand, and is believed to be committed to them. After communism's collapse, he worked with people like Anotoly Chubais in the liberal St. Petersburg government of the early 1990s. Transferred to Moscow, he headed the FSB (the transformed KGB) until Yeltsin suddenly appointed him prime minister last August.