Yeltsin and Putin

The Russian change of guard has mixed forecast for democracy

Like the much-over-hyped Y2K crisis, Boris N. Yeltsin stepped down from the Russian presidency on the last day of 1999 not with a bang, but with a whimper. In a tearful address, Yeltsin apologized to the Russian people for the continued hardships of everyday life across the country, despite his repeated promises to cure Russia's woes. Yeltsin's parting words were a far cry from his defiant stance against a communist coup in August 1991, when he memorably leapt on a tank. While this time Yeltsin stole the New Year's thunder, he did the mature thing in admitting to his limited capabilities.

Yeltsin's actions during the 1991 coup did much to bring democracy to Russia, but unfortunately, he has not lived up to such ideals since then. Plagued by ill health, Yeltsin's competence as a leader has long been suspect. Corruption, crime and economic malaise flourished in Russia over the last few years. A criminal investigation instigated by then-Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov in early 1999 did little to improve Yeltsin's image. Yeltsin, the first democratically elected Russian president, is better known for bravado than diplomacy. His abrupt moves marked a politician more concerned with his personal future than that of his nation.

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin stands to govern Russia in Yeltsin's stead, at least until elections are held on March 26. Famed for his tough stance against Chechen separatists, Putin is confident in his new post. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin is a relatively youthful 47 years old and doesn't have to worry about his own health in addition to that of his country. The former KGB insider is a career opportunist whose first act as prime minister was to offer Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.

Yet Putin's widespread popularity and his declared hardline against corruption bode well for Russia's future. Indeed, one of his next acts after covering Yeltsin's tracks was to remove Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, the recent subject of an investigation into allegations of bribery, from her Kremlin post as "image adviser" to the president. Along with Dyachenko, Putin fired several other members of Yeltsin's inner circle, who have also come under fire for corrupt practices, from their government positions. His promises of economic reform sit well with investors. The Russian stock market rose by about 20 percent in the wake of Putin's assumption of the presidency.

The front where Putin will have to act most carefully is the war in Chechnya. A shuffle last week in the top Russian combat generals suggests panic over the need for a hasty resolution of the conflict before the March elections. Unfortunately, high civilian death tolls and unannounced deaths of Russian soldiers have not been perceived as impediments to this goal. In his vigilant efforts to secure his office, Putin is staking his reputation on a misguided war. We hope that Putin will demonstrate enough vision as a leader to sow the beginnings of justice and cooperation instead of personally reaping the rewards of corruption and war.