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Before Putin It’s been two decades since Boris Yeltsin stepped down and tapped his successor, but there are lingering questions about the official history

Source: Meduza
TASS

Twenty years ago, on December 31, 1999, Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, announced his resignation, catapulting a young Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to head of state. It was the first time in Russia’s history that a living leader left office voluntarily. Everyone who witnessed or participated in the event remembers it roughly the same way, but there are still a few things we don’t know about how Yeltsin stepped down. Meduza’s Dmitry Kartsev looks at the lingering questions.

How do we know the details of Yeltsin’s resignation?

The circumstances of Boris Yeltsin’s resignation are best cataloged in his 2001 memoirs, “Presidential Marathon” (published in English as “Midnight Diaries”). The president's son-in-law and former chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, says he wrote the book with Yeltsin. “It was very easy with the last book,” he claimed in an interview in 2019. “I myself participated in all these events between 1996 and 2000. [...] I was writing it and, if I suddenly had any questions, I’d go to him.”

Some of the details about Yeltsin’s resignation described in “Presidential Marathon” have changed from one Russian edition to the next, but there are no historians or journalists who were any closer to the events at hand than Valentin Yumashev, making it hard to verify the claims in the book. This ambiguity raises the significance of what other direct participants remember about Yeltsin stepping down. For those serving in the Kremlin at the turn of the century, however, the issue remains sensitive while Vladimir Putin is still president, and their recollections today are also questionable.

Finally, there are the news reports from the time. Yes, it’s even harder to verify 20-year-old scoops, but it’s still useful to compare these stories to the “canonical version” of Yeltsin’s resignation that later formed.

How did it all happen?

Rumors that Boris Yeltsin might step down before the end of his second presidential term emerged in the mid-1990s as his popularity started nosediving. Before his re-election in 1996, there was even talk that he might not run for a second term.

Speculation that Yeltsin would resign early coincided with a wave of contradictory gossip that he might try to remain in office for a third term by either changing the Constitution or forcing Russia’s Constitutional Court to rule that he’d been elected to his first term under a different law (in a different country, for that matter, since the USSR still existed), meaning that his first four years in office wouldn’t count against Russia’s consecutive two-term limit.

In the fall of 1998, Kremlin chief of staff Valentin Yumashev announced that the president had implemented a so-called “special operational procedure” wherein, according to the newspaper Kommersant, Yeltsin voluntarily declined active participation in Russia’s political process. The reasons for the new policy were the president’s deteriorating health and extreme unpopularity after August 17, when the government devalued the ruble and defaulted on domestic debt. In practice, Yeltsin’s “special procedure” didn’t become a major milestone in Russian history, but the fact that it happened at all is a vivid sign of the times. 

During Yeltsin’s final two years in office, new prime ministers were appointed as frequently as in the last years of the Russian Empire, when the turnover was known as “ministerial musical chairs.” After 1998, following nearly six years of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister, the office changed hands four times, from Sergey Kiriyenko to Evgeny Primakov to Sergey Stepashin to Vladimir Putin. When appointing this last man, Yeltsin announced that he saw him becoming president after he left office, despite the fact that Putin was virtually unknown to the general public. According to Petr Aven’s book on Boris Berezovsky, Yumashev says Yeltsin had already picked Putin as his successor several months earlier, even before he appointed Stepashin as prime minister.

Boris Yeltsin congratulates Vladimir Putin on his confirmation in the State Duma as Russia’s new prime minister. Moscow, August 16, 1999.
Alexander Sentsov and Alexander Chumichev / TASS

After Putin’s promotion, his popularity started growing rapidly, as the Kremlin’s opponents (especially Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov) suffered rating setbacks. As a result, the pro-Kremlin “Unity” movement — created just a few months earlier — finished second in Russia’s State Duma elections on December 19, 1999.

According to Boris Yeltsin, Putin was the first person he informed about his plans to resign. The conversation supposedly took place before the December parliamentary elections. “Putin’s initial reaction discouraged me. He said, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this decision, Mr. Yeltsin,’” he later remembered, adding, “No, this wasn’t weakness. You can’t call Putin weak. These were the doubts of a strong person. ‘You see, Mr. Yeltsin, this is a rather heavy fate.’” Yeltsin says he then described his own biography to Putin and asked again, saying, “Well, how about now? You still haven’t answered me.” In the end, Putin said, “I agree, Mr. Yeltsin.”

The president says he didn’t reveal at the time when exactly he would step down, but he says he already knew then that it would be on December 31, 1999. Journalist Leonid Mlechin thinks Yeltsin was drawn to the date's symbolism: Russia would enter the new millennium with a new president. 

On December 28, Yeltsin pre-recorded his New Year’s televised address. When it was done, however, he said, “My voice came out hoarse somehow. And I don’t like the text. We’ll redo it.” That evening, he informed his current and former chiefs of staff, Alexander Voloshin and Valentin Yumashev, about his decision to resign. “Voloshin looks at me without blinking. Yumashev also freezes, waiting to hear what I’ll say next,” Yeltsin wrote. “Later, Voloshin told me that he was so lost at that moment that he got a lump in his throat and nearly broke down.” Yeltsin insisted that his decision to leave office completely surprised his political team. 

Afterward, the discussion turned to technical details. Yumashev suggested telling Yeltsin’s daughter (Yumashev's future wife), Tatyana Dyachenko, who by that time had become one of the president’s closest advisers. Immediately after Yeltsin’s resignation, she told the newspaper Kommersant that she’d started guessing about her father’s plans about a month earlier when he visited China and “tried the local food,” which he’d never done before.

The next day, Yeltsin spoke to Putin again and informed him that his acting presidency would begin imminently, on December 31. “I’ll tell you how I want to structure this morning, and how events will follow one another,” Yeltsin recalled himself saying. “The television address, the signing of executive orders, the transfer of the nuclear briefcase, meetings with top security officials, and so on. Together, we’ll tweak what is now our joint plan.”

Boris Yeltsin addresses the nation on December 31, 1999, for the last time as president. With English subtitles.
Vladimir Putin addresses the nation on December 31, 1999, for the first time as acting president. With English subtitles.

“When the speech was done and the camera was switched off, Mr. Yeltsin took out a handkerchief from his pocket and brought it to his eyes,” wrote Kommersant. “The retired president didn’t want television viewers to see his tears. Tatyana Dyachenko went up to her father, took his hand, and cried, too. Finally, Yeltsin pulled himself together. ‘Now you know why I called you here today. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,’ he told the TV crew. And then he had champagne brought into the room.”

On December 31, 1999, at noon Moscow time, Vladimir Putin became acting head of state and signed his first executive order “on guarantees to the president of the Russian Federation, who had ceased to exercise his powers, and members of his family.”

“Take care of Russia,” Yeltsin told Putin as he left his office in the Kremlin.

What questions remain?

When historians are left with a limited number of sources to describe certain events, often all they can do is find inconsistencies and contradictions in the available data (sometimes literally in the seemingly most insignificant details) and formulate questions from there. Without resorting to conspiracy theories, this rarely sustains full-fledged alternative explanations about what happened (it’s not enough to find gaps — you’ve got to fill them with something), but this work does at least offer a few avenues for further inquiry.

1. Why was Putin’s first executive order about guarantees for Yeltsin?

Of everything that transpired on New Year’s Eve in 1999, this presidential decree has generated probably the most rumors and speculation. In his memoirs, even Yeltsin addressed the concerns: “The biggest nonsense is treating the executive order like a deal between Yeltsin and Putin. He grants me immunity and I free up the Kremlin for him early.” Perhaps the decree’s significance is in fact exaggerated. According to what Putin signed, only Boris Yeltsin received personal immunity; members of his family could count on comprehensive social benefits, but nothing more.

Journalist and historian Oleg Moroz, whose books Yumashev has called “beautiful, intelligent, and profound,” explains the executive order as a “basic household necessity.” “At that time, no document existed that would regulate the details of transferring power from one president to another,” says Moroz. “A simple and primitive logic prevailed in this case: Without a decree or at least oral instructions from the current (or acting) head of state, not a single car from the Federal Protective Service would budge from its place, and not one officer from this agency would be assigned to protect the outgoing leader [...].”

Within less than a month, the State Duma formally replaced Putin’s decree with a law. Writing about this issue in his memoirs, Yeltsin expressed reservations that might be more important than any conspiracy theory, insofar as they clearly reflect the Russian political elite’s views on the law: “Only someone deeply naive and ignorant about politics could believe that executive orders and legislation can guarantee anything for a country’s former leader.”

2. When did Yeltsin and Putin first discuss the former’s resignation?

In his memoirs, Yeltsin says he first discussed his resignation plans with Putin on December 14, emphasizing that it was five days before Russia’s parliamentary elections. According to an article written by Ilya Bulavinov published in Kommersant a few days after Yeltsin’s resignation, however, this conversation didn’t happen until December 22 — three days after the State Duma elections. Another text published on January 6 by the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta cites the same information, as does journalist-historian Oleg Moroz.

This could be merely some minor confusion, but perhaps there’s something more here. Maybe Yeltsin based his decision to step down on the results of the State Duma elections.

3. What was the Kremlin planning to do before the next presidential election, if it had happened on schedule?

This question arises because there was going to be about six months between the parliamentary elections on December 19, 1999, and the next presidential contest planned for June 2000. (The latter was moved up to March 2000 because federal law required a new presidential election within three months of Yeltsin's resignation.) Six months was a long period of time, given the turbulence of political life in Russia then. Recall that Putin’s approval rating skyrocketed from zero to more than 50 percent in the two months between his appointment as prime minister and Russia’s State Duma elections. What might have happened if Putin’s rising popularity suddenly nosedived? Also concerning was the fact that the pro-Putin “Unity” party (despite its apparent electoral success) couldn’t actually form the largest faction in parliament, let alone a super-majority capable of amending the Constitution.

The people surrounding Putin and Yeltsin must have considered such things, but in interviews today these figures indicate that they weren’t thinking in terms of any special tactics. They don’t openly admit it, anyway.

4. Why were there so many rumors about Yeltsin’s early resignation, long before it ever happened?

In the late 1990s, the Russian mass media more or less openly described Boris Yeltsin as someone unfit to lead the country and possibly incapable of making independent decisions generally. It was this era that popularized cliches about “the seven bankers,” ”the oligarchs,” and “the family.” This kind of coverage naturally encouraged speculation about an early resignation.

By October 1998, after Valentin Yumashev informed the general public about the president’s new “special operational procedure,” Kommersant journalist Veronika Kutsyllo wrote that Yeltsin’s early resignation now seemed “inevitable” (though she herself disputed the idea). The next year, the Russian media exploded with talk that Yeltsin would step down specifically on September 16, 1999 (after Putin had served as prime minister for more than a month). When this day came and went, State Duma deputy Alexander Shokhin (the future president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs) predicted a new date: October 19. Yeltsin would hang on for another two and a half months, and throughout that time it seems the country’s political elite expected him to step down literally any day.

Earlier in the year, in the summer of 1999, the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets published an article by journalist Alexander Budberg (the future husband of Dmitry Medvedev’s future press secretary, Natalya Timakova), who attributed Yeltsin’s early-resignation plans to political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky. (Budberg thought the president would tap Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, not Putin, as his successor.) At the time, the newspaper was close to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and harshly criticized the Kremlin, and the article used language like “intellectual carpetbagger.” In a July 2018 interview, Pavlovsky said the Kremlin started discussing resignation scenarios in the spring of 1999, emphasizing that the final decision about a successor, let alone the resignation itself, rested with Yeltsin. The billionaire Boris Berezovsky (who was still close to the Kremlin at this time) said in 2001 that he, too, was privy to conversations about Yeltsin’s early retirement, though he claimed this strategizing was “outside his wheelhouse.”

Boris Yeltsin leaves the Kremlin after transferring power to Vladimir Putin. Pictured center: chief of staff Alexander Voloshin. Moscow, December 31, 1999.
Alexander Sentsov and Alexander Chumichev / TASS

5. So was it Yeltsin’s own decision to step down?

For several years now, a kind of anti-myth has replaced the idea that Yeltsin was totally dependent on those around him, and it’s become popular to argue that the president actually maintained a firm grip on power until the end, refusing to let anyone interfere in his actions. Curiously, this is the version of history we get from Yeltsin’s allies, whether they’ve remained close to the Kremlin (like Alexander Voloshin) or joined the opposition (like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who claimed in August 2017 that the oligarchs never had any real influence on Russian politics).

The problem here is that a strong Yeltsin contradicts everything said and written about the president in the late 1990s. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.

Text by Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock