The announcement caught Russia by surprise and is likely to throw the country into yet another political crisis as parties scramble to prepare for unexpected presidential elections.
Looking pale and grim in a speech on national television, Yeltsin said he had turned over his powers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, his preference to succeed him as president.
"Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I resign," Yeltsin said.
President Clinton's Response
The resignation appeared timed to capitalize on the success of pro-Kremlin, centrist parties in recent parliamentary elections. Parties backing Putin scored unexpectedly well, adding to the drive to put him into the Kremlin as Yeltsin's successor.
Putin signed a decree Friday giving Yeltsin immunity from legal prosecution, a lifetime security detail and a pension package. The immunity given to Yeltsin came in a decree referring to all future ex-presidents rather than to him personally.
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|Read Details From Putin's Decree|
Yeltsin's political foes failed earlier this year to impeach the president on five charges, ranging from ruining the economy and armed forces to crushing the 1993 rebellion of the hard-line parliament elected in the Soviet era.
Under the Russian constitution, presidential elections must be held within 90 days of the president's resignation.
Putin will act as president during the interim, giving him an even bigger advantage in the race for the presidency.
CBS News Moscow Correspondent David Hawkins reports Putin has been the odds-on favorite to replace Yeltsin. When the Prime Minister was appointed, Yeltsin said that Putin was the man he wanted to replace him when he left office.
According to Hawkins, Putin is the most popular politician in Russia, largely due to his successful campaign in Chechnya.
President Clinton was notified of Yeltsin's decision at 5:00 a.m. ET by Sandy erger, his assistant for national security affairs, according to CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.
After a 20-minute phone call to the Russian leader, President Clinton hailed the transfer of power as another example of Russia's progress toward a lasting democracy.
"I look forward to working with acting President Putin as the Russian people begin the process of making the transition from one democratically elected President to another," Mr. Clinton said.
The two presidents had developed a rapport calling each other Boris and Bill, according to Plante who added that the United States has no real relationship with acting President Putin.
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|Boris Yeltsin's Political Timeline|
After Yeltsin's resignation was confirmed in contacts with Russian officials, a White House spokesman, James Fallin, said, "We consider this a dramatic step. While there is an element of surprise, it was not a complete one."
Other world leaders expressed a range of emotions:
- "Boris Yeltsin has played a crucial role in the history of Russia," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
"He has steered his country through a most difficult and painful transition," he said. "We now look forward to the presidential elections when the Russian people will decide on Boris Yeltsin's successor and take a further step toward embedding the democratic process."
- 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.
- French President Jacques Chirac 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.
- Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, also chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said, however, that while the war in Chechnya "clouded the last months of his presidency," Yeltsin deserved praise as Russia's first popularly elected president.
Yeltsin, 68, hit by corruption allegations in reent months, reportedly had been looking for assurances for the safety of himself and his family when he steps down. Putin, as president, would be able to give Yeltsin such immunity.
Plagued for years by heart and other health problems, Yeltsin has largely been out of sight during his second term. He spent many weeks sidelined at his country residence outside Moscow and was largely seen as a caretaker president.
But Yeltsin continued to dominate Russian politics, despite ill health. He easily defeated a Communist-led effort in May to impeach him and had dismissed four prime ministers in the last two years.
Investors celebrated the resignation Friday, hoping a new president could unlock stalled reforms and revitalize Russia's moribund economy. Russian markets soared to a 15-month high and Western markets lifted slightly on the news.
The Russian Trading System Index jumped 18 percent to 177.71 points Friday, the highest close since July 1998.
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