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Praising Boris N. Yeltsin for helping to steer his country from communism to democracy, foreign leaders also expressed hope Friday that a new leader may improve Russia's ailing economy and its strained relations with the West.

"Boris Yeltsin has played a crucial role in the history of Russia," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a statement released through his Downing Street office.

"He has steered his country through a most difficult and painful transition. . . . We now look forward to the presidential elections when the Russian people will decide on Boris Yeltsin's successor and take a further step towards embedding the democratic process."

In a nationally televised speech, the 68-year-old Yeltsin surprised much of the world by announcing Friday that he was resigning immediately and handing over powers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin until the presidential elections in March.

Yeltsin also apologized to the nation for failing to fulfill their dreams during his eight years of power, a period in which his health deteriorated and his leadership became increasingly bogged down by corruption and scandal.

In the United States, President Clinton paid tribute to the Russian leader for dismantling a communist system and putting a democratic structure in place.

"I liked him because he deplored communism," Clinton said at the White House. "I liked him because he was always forthright with me. He always did exactly what he said he would do. And he was willing to take chances to try to improve our relationship."

Leaders of the ex-Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine also praised Yeltsin for opening up the country, as did U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin thanked Yeltsin for building friendly ties between the once-hostile neighbors, who used to be fierce rivals for the allegiance of the socialist world. Jiang appealed to Yeltsin's successor to maintain the partnership, China's Xinhua News Agency reported.

"In making ceaseless efforts for the development of Chinese-Russian relations, the strategic partnership that we initially built together is strengthening daily," Jiang said in a telegram sent Friday, Xinhua reported.

While many leaders said they looked ahead eagerly to the presidential elections, they also offered congratulations to Putin, who is the strong favorite to win in March.

In Japan, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said, "I hope that Yeltsin's successor will continue the current reforms in politics and the economy." He added that Putin struck him as "a fearless and aggressive leader."

French President JacquesChirac wrote a letter of congratulations to Putin, saying that he was "convinced in this period of transition . . . that you will be able to act in favor of a return to peace, to the deepening of democracy and the pursuit of indispensable reforms." Chirac wrote a separate letter to Yeltsin.

But some leaders emphasized that Yeltsin's departure won't solve Russia's many problems.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has experienced years of economic decline, and millions live in poverty. Efforts to build a market economy have had little effect on most people's lives, and millions of pensioners and workers go months without being paid.

Yeltsin's relations with the West also have soured recently over Russia's military offensive in Chechnya and NATO's attack on Serbia earlier this year.

As for the dramatic way in which he resigned, many said that was vintage Yeltsin.

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