Boris Yeltsin's final act as president was pure Yeltsin: seize the initiative and strike when the enemy least expects it.
With his sudden resignation on Friday, the mercurial Russian leader stepped from power into history as the man who steered Russia from Communism but at some point lost his way.
Mr. Yeltsin probably will be remembered best as the champion of a free Russia, standing defiantly atop a tank in 1991 to challenge a Communist coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But he leaves behind an ambivalent record of missed opportunities in the path toward democracy and capitalism.
During his nine years as Russia's first post-Soviet president, Yeltsin was supported by the West as an alternative to the Communist past, but many Russians think of him as the man who wrecked their once great superpower.
"Yeltsin's main legacy is a ruined country," says Boris Grushin, one of Russia's most prominent independent pollsters, in Moscow. "Everything good that happened during his time was not because of but despite state power."
On one hand, Russia has a working Constitution and parliamentary system. Freedom of speech is allowed. The country has made major inroads into dismantling 70 years of heavy state control of the economy and society. Moscow has an uneasy but functioning cooperation with the West on international security.
But the Russia that Yeltsin leaves to acting President and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a much poorer place. The shelves are full of goods, but few of Russia's 147 million people can afford them. Widespread corruption and a flawed privatization program have enriched only a small elite, who prefer to send their billions abroad rather than invest them at home. The nation once feared by the West is now essentially a third-world state, taken seriously because of its rusting nuclear arsenal.
Not all of Russia's decay is Yeltsin's fault. Even critics admit that such a revolutionary transition would have been difficult for anyone to oversee. But much of the blame lies on Yeltsin's loss of vision and moral authority, amid terrible blunders in his drive to cling to power and crush political enemies. One competitor, Mr. Gorbachev, Friday described Yeltsin as "this arrogant power who wants to strike while the iron is hot."
Even state television's homage could not hide his disintegration in the past few years. The slide was dramatic considering his promising start. Yeltsin began political life as a Communist Party apparatchik from provincial Yekaterinburg and emerged as a populist alternative to Gorbachev in the final year of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin played a pivotal role in the collapse of the Soviet empire, undermining the Communist Party by walking out of its congress in 1990, and along with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, declared the Soviet Union dead in December 1991.
But once ensconced in the Kremlin, he proved himself less capable as a leader than as an opposition voice on the barricades. Yeltsin pushed through an autocratic Constitution and called out tanks to quell a parliamentary revolt in 1993. He tried to assert his authority further in a disastrous military campaign in 1994-96 against Muslim separatists in Chechnya.
As Yeltsin's legitimacy eroded, so did his health. Heart surgery in 1996 began a series of long disappearances from public view due to illness. Yeltsin managed to win a second term in 1996, but all signs were that he was losing his grip on power in the following years. In rare public appearances, he often appeared incoherent or stumbling.
The president only seemed to spring into action when he appeared threatened by political rivals, firing four prime ministers from March 1998 to August 1999.
Yeltsin's popularity ratings sank sharply after a severe financial crisis in August 1998. They fell to 2 percent during the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia this spring, which were conducted without consulting Russia.
Impatience with Yeltsin was growing abroad, too. Foreign investors took flight and lenders such as the International Monetary Fund began holding back loans. Over the past year, close aides of the president have been accused of crimes such as money laundering, corruption, and embezzlement. While investigations are still pending, Yeltsin and his daughter and adviser, Tatiana, were implicated in a bribery scandal involving a Swiss building company, Mabetex. It was widely accepted in Russia that Yeltsin would only leave power once he was assured he could spend his final days as a free and prosperous man.
Knowing that Yeltsin's time was up after the June 2000 presidential vote, the Kremlin began working to ensure its people got in. Riding on the crest of a smear campaign against the opposition and on the popularity of a new war launched in Chechyna in October, a Kremlin-backed party put in a good showing in the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections.
Heartened by the success, and wanting to ride out while the momentum is still high, Yeltsin chose New Year's eve to step down, bringing presidential elections forward to March.
The televised resignation was a consummate Yeltsinesque grand geste. Sitting somberly at his desk, he sought to regain the moral high ground in history by apologizing for failing to meet his subjects' expectations.
Then he opened the way for a new generation, saying goodbye on noon on the last day of the century, linking the end of his own era with that of the past 1,000 years.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society