Russia's future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 January, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 January, 2000, 12:00am

Once again Boris Yeltsin, that great maverick of Russian politics and master of the unexpected and dramatic gesture, caught everyone by surprise.

And once again the 68-year-old leader has, at a stroke, managed to plunge his nation into uncertainty.

President of his country for eight turbulent years, Mr Yeltsin has long been unpopular in Russia, largely due to his flawed attempts to introduce a capitalist economy, attempts that have been dogged by corruption, official incompetence and uncontrollable crime.

Hampered for years by various health problems, he has been largely off the centre stage of Russian politics during his second term. But behind the scenes he has continued to wield a powerful influence - easily managing to defeat efforts to impeach him eight months ago and dramatically sacking four prime ministers in the past two years.

Mr Yeltsin's greatest fight, however, might yet lie ahead - a personal battle to head off allegations of corruption, which have now also embroiled members of his family, most notably his daughter. Mr Yeltsin's appeal to Russians to forgive the errors of his administration - an unusual demonstration of humility from him - may have been motivated by his recognition that although he has been granted immunity if prosecutors now probing the claims uncover hard evidence, his family may not be.

Mr Yeltsin's resignation is certain to plunge the country's politicians into presidential election fever as the jockeying for power platforms begins. For average Russians, most of whom appear to be cynical of all politicians and who are far more concerned with making ends meet, the political manoeuvring will mean little.

At times, Mr Yeltsin's eccentric and sometimes embarrassing behaviour seemed more suited to a farce than to the political arena. It was terrifying to realise that such a man, so often an apparently laughable buffoon, exercised so much power and controlled such military might. Certainly, on the international stage he did little to raise Russia's prestige.

And yet, for all his undoubted failings, Mr Yeltsin has done the right thing by resigning early. Now, at least, Russia can turn its attention to choosing a successor and then, perhaps, to tackling in earnest the enormous economic and social problems it faces.