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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Washington Prepares to Deal with New Man in Moscow

Aired January 1, 2000 - 6:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: The new year brings a new era to Russia. Boris Yeltsin, who stood up to the communists and who led the post- Soviet Russia through the 1990s, is gone, having resigned the presidency in favor of his prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The 47- year-old Mr. Putin is now the acting president. His assent was lifted in large part by the Russian military's hard charge in Chechnya, an offensive that pushed forward today, even as Mr. Putin visited the region.

CNN's Eileen O'Connor now on the new man in charge.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For many people in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin's decision to cede the presidency to his prime minister was just all the more reason to celebrate.

"The main event here is really the resignation of the president and the new person's arrival," Luball (ph) says. "He's younger, more energetic. We put all our hopes on him."

Others were a little more cautious.

"New power is always new power," Anatoly says. "We will hope that the life of Russians will improve. It is the New Year, it's a time of hope, renewed expectations that Boris Yeltsin's closest advisers say he was counting on to help him in passing the torch.

ANATOLY CHUBAIS, FORMER YELTSIN AIDE: He said the new generation, which he could see now on the Russian political scene, able to do what he can do in his time, and they may think he underlines the irreversibility of the transformation of Russia.

O'CONNOR: That is something the West is hoping for, that Putin will be true to his word and continue economic and political reforms, building a stronger and democratic institution, like a free press. For now, with the press controlled financially by Boris Yeltsin's strongest supporters, Mr. Putin is shown in only the most favorable light, his strength accentuated. Any signs of a benevolent leader interested in a people played repeatedly.

It was no accident that one his first moves was to fly down to toast troops fighting Chechen rebel, whom he calls terrorist. Putin's message to them, a message to the people. VLADIMIR PUTIN, ACTING RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The country needs what you're doing badly, really badly. We're not talking about restoration of dignity of the country. No, it's about much more serious things; it's about putting an end to Russia falling apart.

O'CONNOR: It's that kind of sentiment that most appeals to Russians sick of half-hearted reforms to crime and corruption. It's that kind of appeal that makes it difficult for Putin's opponents, like Communist Part chief Gennady Zyuganov, to find fault, so far, resorting to digging at Mr. Putin's main benefactor, Boris Yeltsin.

GENNADY ZYUGANOV, COMMUNIST PARTY LEADER (through translator): His epoch is finished already, and it finished a long time ago, finished now that the country is in ruins.

O'CONNOR (on camera): Opinion polls show that if the elections were held tomorrow, Mr. Putin would be a shoo-in to remain as president. But as even he admits, the tree months remaining those elections represents a very long time in Russian politics.

Eileen O'Connor CNN, Moscow.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: What does Washington think about all this? The word from some at least some U.S. officials is that they know Mr. Putin, but not very well.

CNN's State Department correspondent, Andrea Koppel, joins us now with more on the U.S. reaction -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Clinton began the new year by calling acting President Putin to congratulate him on his new job. The two men pledged to work together closely, but they made no progress on their strong disagreement over the war in Chechnya, just one of a number of areas of hot spots in the 21st century.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): The 20th century ended with the departure of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, leaving the war in Chechnya, a major hot spot, to his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, as the 21st century begins.

Another potential hot spot: Taiwan, with presidential elections set for March. The last time voters went to the polls there, in 1996, China, which claims Taiwan is a renegade province, launched a massive round of war games to discourage Taiwan from moving towards independence. The United States then sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Straits in a tense standoff which many feared would escalate.

Warmer diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang haven't eliminated deep-seated concern about North Korea's advanced missile program. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, a military coup has dashed hopes of a quick peace with India, increasing tensions between south Asia's newest nuclear powers.

Next store in Afghanistan, it's a different concern, safe haven to suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his followers. The United States is trying to neutralize a growing threat to Americans at home and abroad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think, unfortunately, they're going to have to get better to meet the challenge, because terrorism is a cheap weapon.

KOPPEL: But the start of the 21st century isn't all doom and gloom. A long-sought peace in Northern Ireland is finally being realized, and in the United States, on the eve of a new round of peace talks between arch-enemies Israel and Syria, the mood is upbeat.

GEOFFREY KEMP, THE NIXON CENTER: If there is a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, and this is followed by a treaty between Israel and Lebanon, this is very good news for the United States because it will strengthen the American position in the Persian Gulf, it will further isolate Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: How to deal with Baghdad is yet another challenge facing the international community as it struggles to get United Nations weapons inspectors back into Iraq, more than a year after President Saddam Hussein kicked them out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, about the new acting president, Mr. Putin, what kind of relationship, if any, does he have with Madeleine Albright, the U.S. secretary of state?

KOPPEL: They have only met a couple of times. Each time, acting President Putin, as prime minister, met with President Clinton. Secretary Albright was there both in New Zealand back in September and shortly thereafter in November at the OSCE summit in Turkey, Wolf. So she has met with him just a couple times.

BLITZER: OK, Andrea Koppel, our State Department correspondent, reporting from Washington.

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