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Saturday, 8 January, 2000, 17:40 GMT
Tales of Yeltsin's resignation

Boris Yeltsin Boris Yeltsin: Called time on his presidency

By Moscow correspondent Andrew Harding

It was, apparently, the Peking Duck that gave it away.

A month before he surprised the world by resigning on New Year's Eve, Boris Yeltsin was in China on an official visit.

Yeltsin resigns
According to his daughter, Tatiana, Papa never ate foreign food. But one evening in Beijing, he noticed his family tucking in to the duck, and asked to try some.

It was at that moment, said Tatiana later, that I realised he was up to something. More unusual behaviour followed, but she insisted, Papa did not actually tell any of us his plan until the very day he stood down.

It is a nice image - the stern patriarch allowing himself to relax just a little, as he secretly plots an early retirement. I can see Jimmy Stewart playing Boris with lashings of pathos.

But is that what really happened? Most Russians seem to think not.

For a start, Tatiana is no wide-eyed teenager. She is her father's closest aide, and image-maker. A woman who deliberately concealed his heart attack from the public in 1996.

A woman now being investigated by the Swiss authorities, who suspect she may be at the centre of a multi-million dollar Kremlin bribery scandal.

Family conspiracy

Tatiana is a key member of what Russians call "The Family" - a shadowy group of presidential aides and advisors who, it is widely believed, have basically run the country.

Tatiana and Boris Tatiana and Boris: Immunity deal
The theory goes that the Family decided to push Mr Yeltsin out of office early, in order to make it easier for their chosen successor, Vladimir Putin to take over.

Some even believe the Family deliberately started the war in Chechnya, in order to give Mr Putin a platform, and a cause which would boost his popularity.

In return, Mr Putin would guarantee that the Family has protection from nosy Swiss and Russian investigators.

Russians love and cherish their conspiracy theories - and this is certainly a good one. I don't know for sure if it's true.

But I do know that the very first thing Mr Putin did on taking over last week was to sign a decree giving Boris Yeltsin, and implicitly his family, full immunity from prosecution.

As he left the Kremlin, Boris, in full Jimmy Stewart mode, patted his successor on the shoulder, and with barely a dry eye in the house, told him to "take care of Russia."

Echoes of Gorbachev

There was, in the end, something strangely anti-climactic about the whole event. I've been waiting for Boris Yeltsin to quit, or die for years.

It is the one thing everyone asks you about Russia? "So, is Boris on his last legs then?" they say.

Red Square Red Square: Same time, same story, different leader
As it turned out I was down in Chechnya when the news broke, and had to jump on a plane to get back to Moscow.

Standing in Red Square that evening, I realised it was exactly eight years since Mikhail Gorbachev had also resigned, and that I was in Red Square that night too.

There was no cushy retirement deal for the Soviet leader. No immunity from prosecution. Apparently Boris Yeltsin did not even want to let his rival keep a car or a bodyguard.

The crowds outside the Kremlin were small in 1991. There were a few fireworks and a group of drunken English rugby fans.

There was a Californian monk wandering round in a cassock with a giant wooden statue of the Virgin Mary on his shoulder. He told me earnestly that he wanted to get permission to put it on one of the Kremlin towers in place of a red star.

Well, the red stars are still in place. So, for that matter, is Lenin in his mausoleum. Last week the crowds in Red Square were bigger, rowdier and happier than in 1991.

Good news, bad news

But what struck me on both occasions was how little anyone on the streets seemed to care about what was going on inside the Kremlin.

You know when you look through the obituary pages in the newspaper and see that someone famous has just died - and you are surprised because you thought they were already dead - well I think it was a bit like that for many Russians with Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin: Man for the future
They had both outstayed their welcomes.

As for Vladimir Putin, well, the good news is that he can, despite appearances, actually smile.

It is a rare, narrow, slightly pained expression - but definitely a smile. The bad news is that no-one knows what he is thinking when he is doing it.

In fact no one seems to know very much at all about Mr Putin. He is 47, a black belt in judo and spent most of his career in the KGB, including a stint in East Germany doing something or other undercover.

The strange thing is that everyone seems to have decided he is the right man to run Russia.

So what if he is ex-KGB, so what if he is Yeltsin and The Family's chosen heir, so what if he has no economic programme?

At least he's a man of action, a tough guy. At least he is not Boris.

Battle for the Caucasus
The odds in March's Presidential election have been carefully, and deliberately stacked in Mr Putin's favour. It will probably be a landslide victory.

The only cloud on the horizon is Chechnya. The conflict there could drag on for months and young Russian soldiers are dying in their dozens.

But I suspect that, sometime before the election, the Kremlin will simply announce that it has won the war. It would not do after all, for the coronation of Czar Putin to be spoiled

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See also:
31 Dec 99 |  Europe
Yeltsin: I resign
01 Jan 00 |  Europe
Vladimir Putin: Spy turned politician
31 Dec 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Shrewd move by Yeltsin
31 Dec 99 |  Europe
Yeltsin: Flawed founder of Russian democracy

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