Why Yeltsin Declared Himself Y2K Incompatible

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Russians give presents at New Year rather than at Christmas, but none could match Boris Yeltsin’s gift to his chosen successor. Russia’s president shocked the nation by resigning Friday, handing the reins of power over to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and bringing next summer’s scheduled presidential election forward to March. "Yeltsin’s decision is plainly driven by the need to ensure Putin’s victory," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "Bringing the election forward gives him a huge advantage by allowing him to ride the wave of support he built up in the Chechyna campaign to carry him all the way to the presidency. Putin’s sole claim to leadership has been the Chechnya campaign, and his people were very much aware that any setbacks there could sink him just as quickly as it propelled him into the lead in the race to succeed Yeltsin." With Chechen rebels proving far more resilient than the boasts of Russia’s generals have allowed for, the accelerated election timetable guards against Putin losing momentum.

Although very little is known as to what the former KGB chief stands for, one of his policy positions is fairly certain: guarantees of immunity from prosecution for Boris Yeltsin and his family. "Many of Yeltsin’s former aides believed he was psychologically incapable of letting go of the presidency," says Meier. "He and his family have long feared a Caucescu scenario, and there’s no doubt that he wouldn’t have quit unless he’d gotten all the immunity guarantees he needed." Yeltsin also asked Russia’s people for a New Year’s gift in return. "I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never came true," he said in an emotional TV address. "And also I would like to beg forgiveness for having not justified your hopes." In other words, he wrote his own political epitaph.