In the last hours before Y2K, technology-watchers around the world kept a nervous eye on Russia. Would the country's computers-outdated and unreliable to begin with-survive the change of millennium? To the surprise of many, Russia's computers did just fine. It was her outdated, unreliable president who crashed.
Boris Yeltsin's announcement that he would resign after nearly a decade in power left in charge his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, a little-known, former KGB official. Under the Russian constitution, the transfer of power is clear-cut: As prime minister, Mr. Putin automatically becomes acting president for 90 days, until elections can be held. But, as usual in Kremlin politics, nothing is as straightforward as it appears.
Mr. Yeltsin, once a larger-than-life figure, became largely invisible during the past several years. Beset with alcoholism, heart problems, and other ailments, he spent most of his time sequestered in his luxury country homes. Russian government foundered as Mr. Yeltsin, in search of a strong successor, sacked four prime ministers within 18 months. Meanwhile, crime spiraled out of control and government corruption became the rule rather than the exception. Multiple inquiries into allegations of bribery and financial mismanagement left Mr. Yeltsin looking so vulnerable that his Communist opponents attempted to impeach him.
But then, beginning in the summer, Mr. Yeltsin's situation seemed to change. His health improved. His poll numbers rose, thanks largely to a popular war with the breakaway republic of Chechnya. And just weeks ago, political parties loyal to the president won a surprise victory in parliamentary elections. Mr. Yeltsin at last looked able to finish out his second term in June 2000-and vowed to do just that.
Then came his millennium bombshell. "Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I resign," he told a shocked audience on national television. "I understand that I must do it and Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, with new faces, with new intelligent, strong, energetic people, and we who have been in power for many years must go."
Mr. Yeltsin, who had always maintained self-confidence even as others lost faith in him, seemed uncharacteristically soul-searching and vulnerable in his farewell address. "I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never came true. And I would like to beg forgiveness not to have justified your hopes," he said. "I beg your forgiveness. I've done what I could. I shouldn't be in the way of the natural course of history.
"I am stepping down ahead of term," he noted-something that had never before occurred in 1,000 years of Russian history. In diplomatic circles around the world, the immediate response was, Why?
Theories abound. Some experts believe Mr. Yeltsin feared the outcome of the pending corruption investigations. In one such probe, Swiss and Russian investigators are looking into claims that a Swiss construction company provided the Yeltsin family millions of dollars in credit guarantees in exchange for huge building contracts with the Kremlin. Significantly, one of Mr. Putin's first actions as president was to sign a decree exempting his predecessor from interrogation or prosecution.
Others see Mr. Yeltsin's resignation as an attempt to ensure the continuation of his policies. Thanks to a successful war in Chechnya, centrist, pro-Yeltsin parties enjoy high approval ratings at the moment. By stepping aside now and forcing early elections, Mr. Yeltsin may have hoped to capitalize on that sentiment, giving Mr. Putin a huge advantage over any Communist challenger.
Finally, there is the possibility that Mr. Yeltsin, despite his claims, did not resign voluntarily. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev voiced fears of a quiet coup within the Kremlin. "Yeltsin did not want to resign," Mr. Gorbachev said. "He resisted it with all his remaining strength. In fact, he was deposed.... There is no change of the regime, there will be no fight against corruption. The interests and the privileges of the oligarchy will be completely preserved."
On Monday, Jan. 3, Mr. Putin made a symbolic strike against that oligarchy by dismissing Mr. Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, from her official post as "image adviser" to the president.
But despite her lowly title, Ms. Dyachenko was widely viewed as the real power behind the feeble president. She, with chief of staff Alexander S. Voloshin and billionaire financier Boris Berezovsky, were at the heart of a secretive cabal known as "The Family." Critics charge that Family members have become fabulously wealthy through sweetheart deals they arranged as Russia lurched toward a free-market economy. It was The Family that plucked Mr. Putin from obscurity in St. Petersburg and rapidly elevated him to Russia's presidency.
Despite the recent gesture against Ms. Dyachenko, many critics believe she continues to have close ties to the new president, whom she trusts to look out for The Family's interests. Indeed, Mr. Gorbachev and others say it was Ms. Dyachenko who forced Mr. Yeltsin out of office, perhaps because she feared her ailing father was too weak to protect her.
Western leaders will watch closely to see whether the new president makes good on his promise to reform a thoroughly corrupt system.
Historians, meanwhile, will examine the ambivalent legacy of Mr. Yeltsin. The man who heroically climbed atop a Soviet tank to condemn a Communist insurgency against Mr. Gorbachev, and who dissolved the Soviet Union with the stroke of a pen, fought two ugly wars against Chechen rebels who sought the same independence gained by other republics. The man who championed Western-style freedoms signed a law that practically banned Western missionary efforts. The man who dismantled the world's largest socialist economy stood idly by while rampant corruption undermined Russian hopes of a truly free-market system.
Still, Mr. Yeltsin's legacy will ultimately be shaped by the actions of his successor. If Mr. Putin allies himself with either the communists or the ultra-nationalists, the Yeltsin era could well look like Russia's halcyon days. Western leaders worry that Mr. Putin, given his KGB background, will favor the kind of authoritarian central government that Mr. Yeltsin was at least trying to dismantle. And Mr. Putin's aggressive execution of the war against Chechnya, while popular with a dispirited Russian populace, has been condemned by Western leaders, who see it as an ominous change in the Kremlin's foreign policy.
Despite Mr. Yeltsin's surprise announcement, the world's millennium party went on as planned. But all the party hats and fireworks could not mask the reality that the world of 2000 is the same dangerous, uncertain place that it was in 1999.