The President appeared on television to declare Vladimir Putin, director of the FSB, who worked for the Soviet KGB for more than 15 years, as the man he wants to be elected to the Kremlin next year.
The famously erratic President's performance came only hours after he unexpectedly sacked his premier of three months, Sergei Stepashin, and his government, thrusting Russia into still further political turmoil.
He nominated Mr Putin, 47, as his next premier, the fifth since March 1998. That appointment must be confirmed by the anti-Yeltsin lower house of parliament, the State Duma, which will meet to debate the issue next Monday.
Mr Putin would be "able to unite those who will renew the great Russia in the 21st century" and continue the "path of reforms", the grave-looking President said in a televised address, as he urged Russians to support his latest favourite. Mr Putin, who is little known by most Russians, followed up by confirming he will be running for president in next summer's elections. It was the most specific endorsement Mr Yeltsin has ever given to a possible successor. Previous potential heirs have all been fired by the president, often amid signs that they angered him by becoming too powerful.
Seeking to quash speculation that he is planning to cancel or postpone elections, or illegally extend his rule with a third term, Mr Yeltsin yesterday emphasised that elections will take place on schedule next year. And he declared a date for the parliamentary elections - 19 December.
Mr Putin, a former KGB colonel, has admitted spying for the Soviet Union in East Germany. He was a political protege of Anatoly Chubais, a fellow St Petersburger and avid free marketeer. Yesterday he said he planned no big changes in the government.
A visibly shocked Mr Stepashin left power unhappily, despite declaring his loyalty to the President. He said the West - which greeted yesterday's events with caution - has seen his government as civilised and honest. Close to tears, he told his cabinet that Mr Yeltsin had not explained his reasons for firing him.
But there are plenty of possible explanations - among them the growing stature of the two leading contenders for the presidency, Yuri Luzhkov and Yevgeny Primakov, both former allies of Mr Yeltsin and his entourage. Russians reacted with a mixture of anger and cynicism to the news. "It's so awful that you can only laugh," said Andrei Lukyanov, a television producer. "Any normal person should be in shock [at the sacking]. But we've seen it once, twice, three times and got used to this tragi-farce. The worst thing is that Russians have no faith left in politicians, not in any of them." Indeed, as elections approach, Russians are losing not only their trust in today's politicians but belief in the very possibility of democracy.
"I can't say whether elections will go ahead or not," said Georgy, a middle-aged Muscovite, "and frankly I don't care. Because it doesn't matter any more. They won't change anything." Although, in theory, Russia now has a multi-party system, no real parties, except the Communist Party, actually exist.
"Those who are not corrupt have no power. It's as simple as that," said Svetlana, a scientist. "They have long ago carved up all the privileges amongst themselves."
Review, page 3
The Discarded Pretenders
To Throne Of Tsar Boris
EX-PARA general backed Yeltsin before end of elections in 1996 Kremlin secretly financed 49-year-old general's bid, needing his 11m (first round) votes to secure Yeltsin re-election. Made national security adviser, but clashed with officials. Fired after four months. Now a regional governor.
GAS BARON fired as unpopular Prime Minister in March 1998 after more than five years in the job. Yeltsin fought to bring him back after booting out Kiriyenko, but parliament rejected 61-year-old's nomination. A player in the Kosovo settlement, but was afterwards elbowed aside.
WILY EX-Foreign Minister and security chief, 69, appointed Premier last September after Parliament rejected Chernomyrdin. Primakov too popular, too independent of the Kremlin, and too friendly with Communists. Yeltsin fired him in May. Country's most trusted politician.
PRO-WEST free marketeer beloved briefly by Tsar Boris. Deputy Prime Minister from March 1997 but left when Sergei Kiriyenko's government fired in August 1998. Now aged 39, in wilderness with other democrats. Greeted yesterday's move with: "It's hard to understand madness."
OBSCURE energy minister. Yeltsin briefly appointed him to replace his Premier Chernomyrdin in 1998. Aged 37, fired five months later just before last August's financial crash. Pro-marketeer, struggling back into the limelight by picking fights with the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov.
FORMER Interior Minister, ex-head of domestic security, and Yeltsin loyalist, aged 47. Appointed Premier in May; sacked yesterday. Seemed to be gaining stature after talks in Washington. After learning of his fate, near tears he said of Yeltsin: "I was, am, and always be with him. Always."