President Boris N. Yeltsin, who led Russia out of the final throes of Soviet communism into a chaotic new world of democracy and a market economy, resigned unexpectedly Friday and appealed for "forgiveness because many of our hopes have not come true."
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became acting president under Russia's constitution. The constitution also requires early presidential elections to be held within three months, and officials said they probably will take place March 26.
Putin, the hard-nosed former KGB agent who has prosecuted Russia's war against separatist rebels in Chechnya, is Yeltsin's chosen successor. Polls show he is the overwhelming favorite to succeed Yeltsin, but others are also planning to run.
"Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, with new faces, with new smart, strong, energetic people," Yeltsin, 68, said in a televised address. "And we who have been in power for many years already, we must go."
Referring to Putin, 47, Yeltsin asked rhetorically: "Why should I stand in his way? Why wait for another six months?"
Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president, was due to step down after his second term ended in June. Yeltsin's historic role in helping to bring an end to communism in 1991 has long been overshadowed by his faltering success in building a capitalist system to replace it. The high expec-tations that marked Yeltsin's early years as president have been replaced by poverty, corruption and a struggling economy.
Yeltsin gained worldwide fame as a champion of democracy when he defiantly scrambled atop a tank outside the Russian parliament building in 1991 to lead popular resistance to an attempted coup against then-Soviet PresidentMikhail S. Gorbachev. Shortly afterward, he became president of an independent Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since then, eight years of economic policies that allowed corrupt privatization of national assets and created a new ruling class of oligarchs have destroyed his popularity. Yeltsin and his family members have been personally stained by scandals.
In a brief hand-over, he watched as Putin received the special control suitcase with electronic gear used for monitoring a possible nuclear attack. Putin quickly signed a decree giving Yeltsin immunity from criminal prosecution, a lifetime pension and a government country home, bodyguards and medical care for him and his family.
But while the immunity will be seen by some as a key reason for Yeltsin's decision, the deal did not include his family. Previous prime ministers, who also had their eye on the presidency, had talked of such a deal for Yeltsin, who is also concerned about Communist efforts to jail him for breaking up the Soviet Union.
The resignation surprised leaders around the world, many of whom praised Yeltsin's support for democratic reforms but criticized his handling of the war in Chech-nya.
One explanation for Yeltsin's timing, analysts said, was the parliamentary election two weeks ago in which a new party closely allied with Putin grabbed the second-largest vote for the lower house, the State Duma. The results reflected Putin's commanding political position, and Kremlin strategists may have calculated that now would be the best time to call a presidential election.
Another factor may be Yeltsin's health, which has been declining for years. He has sometimesappeared disoriented in public, underwent quintuple coronary artery bypass surgery in late 1996, and has suffered several difficult respiratory illnesses and a bleeding ulcer since then.
The decision bore no outward signs of sudden pressure by others on Yeltsin, although details of how he made the decision are not known. As Muscovites prepared for millennium celebrations Friday, there were no signs of instability on the streets. Putin, at a meeting of the Kremlin security council, vowed, "There will never be any power vacuum."
Light snow dusted the spires and cupolas of the Kremlin as Yeltsin stepped outside at 2 p.m. in a fur hat and overcoat, shook hands with Putin, climbed into his Mercedes limousine and was whisked out of the fortress where he had ruled Russia for nearly a decade. His subordinates on the steps saluted farewell.
Earlier, in the television address announcing his departure, Yeltsin was seated alone in a large Kremlin hall that echoed with his voice, a fir tree lighted in the background with holiday ornaments. His face was puffy, and Yeltsin spoke agonizingly slowly.
"I have done everything I could," he said in a strikingly personal and humble New Year's Eve speech. "I want to ask you for forgiveness because many of our hopes have not come true, because what we thought would be easy turned out to be painfully difficult. I ask to forgive me for not fulfilling some hopes of those people who believed that we would be able to jump from the gray, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, rich and civilized future in one go."
Yeltsin said he was retiring in defiance of his critics. "Many times I have often heard it said, 'Yeltsin will try to hold onto power by any means, he won't hand it over to anyone.' That is all lies. That is not the case."