When I spoke to Boris Yeltsin by phone on New Year's Eve, shortly after he announced his resignation, he conveyed a mixture of relief that a tough choice was behind him and confidence that it was the right choice for his country.
The manner of his leaving the presidency was vintage Yeltsin--bold, blunt, even defiant, but rooted in his core belief in the right and the ability of the Russian people to choose their own leaders and their own course for the future.
I met him for the first time in June 1992, when I was still a candidate for the presidency and he was fairly new in his own job. Since then, in the 19 times we've met, I have often heard him speak, with unmistakable and sometimes pugnacious pride, about his greatest achievements and, with equally straightforward candor, about where he still had work to do to build a genuinely democratic, prosperous and modern Russia, pursuing its national interests while cooperating with other great nations and international institutions.
In his statement on Friday he took obvious delight in scoffing at predictions ("lies," he called them) that he would never give up power voluntarily. His critics and rivals wanted to cast him as an autocrat. But the single idea I heard Boris Yeltsin utter more than any other was that his country must never go back to a dictatorship of any kind, especially to the communist system he so clearly detested. His enduring commitment to democracy was evident in his resignation statement, when he said that Russia's recent parliamentary elections, which brought forward a "new generation of politicians," had persuaded him that he had finished "the main job of my life."
Now Yeltsin's designated successor, Vladimir Putin, must be the custodian of Russia's democracy while running for its presidency in March. If Russia is successful in passing power from its first democratically elected President to its second, then the country's direction will be in the hands of a new elected President and Duma, as well as the thousands of elected officials who now run local governments. Multiple parties vie for power through the ballot box. There are some 65,000 nongovernmental organizations and approximately 900,000 private businesses where there were none a decade ago. A pluralist political system and civil society, competing in the world markets and plugged into the Internet, have emerged from a totalitarian monolith that was closed off from the outside world and implacably hostile to our values and interests.
No one deserves a larger share of the credit for this transformation than Yeltsin himself. For all his difficulties, he has been brave, visionary and forthright, and he has earned the right to be called the Father of Russian Democracy.
In saying farewell, Yeltsin was characteristically frank about what hasn't gone right under his leadership. He asked "forgiveness" for hopes that haven't been realized. "What we thought would be easy turned out to be painfully difficult," he said, acknowledging that along with new opportunities for some, the past decade has brought deep hardship for others.