MOSCOW (Reuters)–Russian President Boris Yeltsin stunned his own people and the world on Friday when he chose the last day of the 20th century to resign early after eight years as leader of the world’s largest country.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin–propelled to power as acting president pending an election–immediately pledged to uphold democratic freedoms and crush attempts at destabilization.
Crucially–he also issued a decree guaranteeing Yeltsin and his family protection from prosecution.
Putin–who has overseen a military drive through separatist Chechnya–is Russia’s most popular politician. Yeltsin’s resignation boosted his already considerable chances in the early presidential election–expected on March 26.
World leaders paid tribute to Yeltsin’s reforms. But some urged Putin to end the Chechnya conflict as Russian troops pushed their way into the devastated regional capital Grozny.
"Russia must go into the next millennium with new politicians–with new faces–with new clever–strong–energetic people. But we who have already been in power for many years–we must leave," Yeltsin said.
Yeltsin handed control of the huge nuclear arsenal to Putin by giving him the briefcase with the codes to launch missiles.
In his New Year address–Putin vowed there would be no power vacuum. "I want to warn that any attempt to exceed the limits of law and the Russian Constitution will be decisively crushed." Yeltsin–he said–deserved credit for blazing the trail of a democratic state whose freedoms would be unfailingly upheld.
Putin also told Russia’s partners there would be no change in foreign policy. His focus would be on righting the economy–on the mend from a 1998 financial crisis but still half its size before the collapse of Soviet rule.
Putin worked through Russia’s New Year holiday on Monday–reshuffling the Kremlin administration–meeting a string of top officials and telephoning leaders of other ex-Soviet republics.
Putin also received Russia’s envoy to Chechnya as fighting raged unabated in the rebel region. In his first personnel decisions in his new role–Putin sacked Yeltsin’s daughter–Tatyana Dyachenko–as presidential imagemaker. She was widely believed to have had her father’s ear–making her more formidable than her formal title suggested.
He also removed presidential press secretary and spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin–who will become a Kremlin adviser.
Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin kept his influential post in what amounted to a minor reshuffle–but three of his immediate deputies were demoted to the lesser role of Kremlin adviser. Their replacemen’s were not named.
Putin’s spokesman Mikhail Kozhukov said Putin signed 50 laws and decrees on a busy day that included meetings with central bank governor Viktor Gerashchenko and Constitutional Court head Marat Baglai.
The presidential election is expected to favor Putin–whose popularity is based on successes in the Chechnya war. The closer the election–the smaller the risk of a major setback in the military campaign.
Nikolai Koshman–Russia’s envoy to Chechnya–said he had been told by Putin to call a meeting on Wednesday to discuss plans for Chechnya in the first quarter of this year.