Primakov Earns Broad Support Through Unclear Ideology
By Daniel Williams
Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's new prime minister-in-waiting, was thrust today into the whirlwind of one of post-Soviet Russia's most difficult crises. It is not clear how he will direct the drama, for although his career in public service is long, it gives few clues on how he plans to rescue Russia from its economic free fall.
One thing is certain. With President Boris Yeltsin clearly in a weakened political condition and fragile health taking a toll on his abilities, Primakov has become the central figure in Russian politics.
"He will be wearing the hat not only of prime minister but of president," predicted Sergei Karaganov, a political analyst and longtime associate of Primakov's.
"This results from the fall of a sick and unpopular president," said Constantine Eggert, a columnist on foreign policy and frequent Primakov critic.
"Primakov is not so much the prime minister as an interim president," remarked Dmitri Trenin, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Primakov's ascension to prime minister-designate in some ways parallels his nomination as foreign minister more than 2 1/2 years ago. In both cases, he was elevated to defuse domestic political tensions. In early 1996, Yeltsin was bedeviled by foreign policy critics who complained that Russia had sold out to the West. Primakov made foreign policy a non-issue in Russia by distancing himself from the United States, contending Washington was trying to dominate the globe.
Since then, Primakov set out to reassert Russian influence in several areas, frequently to Washington's discomfort. In the name of establishing a "multipolar" world system, he partially reestablished Moscow's weight in the Middle East. He renewed political support for old Soviet allies, in particular Iraq's Saddam Hussein; he championed an end to United Nations sanctions on Iraq. The policy helped weaken Washington's resolve to punish Saddam Hussein for obstructing U.N. weapons inspections. Primakov first came to global attention when, on the eve of the Persian Gulf War, he traveled to Baghdad to try to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Primakov has lobbied against the expansion of NATO into Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic but acquiesced after negotiating a special relationship with the Atlantic alliance designed to give Russia a say in NATO affairs. He has, however, drawn a line at proposed expansion into the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. NATO must not be permitted to use facilities of the former Soviet republics, he contends.
He persistently opposes the use of force by NATO to pressure Yugoslavia to end its anti-separatist war in the Serbian province of Kosovo. In the face of complaints from the United States and Israel, Primakov has denied that Russia has supplied Iran with technology useful in building medium- and long-range missiles. He said any leakage was on a freelance basis beyond the government's control.
For all his disagreements with the United States, he concurs with Washington on one key unresolved issue: ratification of the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty. He persistently has urged Russia's reluctant legislature to endorse it.
Today, in a speech to foreign legislators -- in which he made no mention of his future job -- Primakov laid out his ambitions to rebuild Moscow's global influence. "There have been those who believe that Russia today is incapable of pursuing an active foreign policy. They argue that Russia must first get out of its economic crisis," he said. "Events show that without Russia's active participation . . . it is difficult, if not impossible, to resolve world tasks."
Many analysts attribute Primakov's rise to the premiership as a function of his lack of a record on the reformation of Russia's economy. He appears to have made no ideological enemies. "I would say one of his advantages is that he is a tabula rasa," said Vladimir Mau, who heads a government research center.
Primakov is not a trained economist. He has no links to big business nor is he closely associated with the young reformers who directed Russia's economy in recent years. His membership on the Communist Party Central Committee during the late years of the Soviet Union means he is familiar with the still gargantuan Russian bureaucracy. That history also makes him acceptable to the Communists and other leftists, yet some liberals do not regard him as ideologically committed to Marxism.
Recently, Primakov hinted at some economic views . In June, he said at a meeting of business leaders in Switzerland that Russia had erred "because of a heavy policy tilt toward macroeconomic stabilization" -- a direct criticism of policies designed to keep inflation under control and the ruble strong.
He said Russia's mistake was in "depending too heavily on the continuing inflows of foreign capital." He suggested that foreign money be replaced by funds that Russians had spirited out of the country illegally. The government must also raise tax revenues, he said.
Later in June, during a speech in London, Primakov argued that the world financial crisis had hit his country hard because foreigners who invested in Russia did so mostly in government bonds, and when they needed cash to cover losses in East Asia, they "withdrew from Russia."
He suggested a New Deal for Russia, emulating steps he said President Franklin D. Roosevelt took: "some state measures, some tax measures that benefited the development of industry."
As imprecise as this position seems, it places Primakov close to the tack taken by Yeltsin's abandoned nominee, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who pledged to print money to stimulate growth, pay back wages to workers and crack down on tax evaders. Many economic observers think such a formula unworkable at best and a recipe for disaster at worst. "Very strong political will is required . . . [as is] the ability of the prime minister to say and do extremely unpopular things," said Mau. "I am not sure [Primakov] has the guts and opportunities to do it."
Primakov will take office with broad support from Russia's alphabet of political parties. Their welcome stood in stark contrast to the sharp attacks on Chernomyrdin, who had been rejected twice by the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.
Failure by the Duma to endorse Chernomyrdin a third time would have set the stage for a constitutional showdown between Yeltsin and legislators, who threatened impeachment. Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Duma's large Communist faction, spoke of a violent confrontation in which Russia's army would be asked to choose sides -- and he predicted they would not choose Yeltsin's.
The showdown was averted. Yeltsin bought a measure of political peace but exposed declining strength. Some Russian observers said that today marked the end of the Yeltsin era.
Never in Yeltsin's seven-year presidential career had he given in so thoroughly to Duma resistance. He had, after all, ordered tanks to fire on recalcitrant legislators in 1993 to flush them from the parliament building. Only last April, over strong legislative opposition, Yeltsin rammed through the nomination of Sergei Kiriyenko, who served as premier for five months. Today, Yeltsin set Chernomyrdin adrift and briefly considered a Communist Party member for the top cabinet post before settling on Primakov.
Trenin, the Carnegie Endowment analyst, suspects that Primakov's appointment is a signal that Yeltsin is planning early retirement. Karaganov said flatly, "The president is defunct."
Primakov, 68, is a veteran of the KGB secret police, and as an agent was code-named Maxim. (He is also a fan of John le Carre's spy novels.) He headed the foreign branch of Russian intelligence from 1991 to 1996. He has long experience in the Arab world, where he was a correspondent for Pravda and covered the 1967 Middle East War.
Friends say he is witty and charming in private, qualities they attribute to a childhood in Georgia, whose residents Russians consider to display the epitome of social graces. He has used these skills, coupled with frankness, to build a close working relationship with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. During a recent meeting in the Philippines, Primakov joined Albright in a satirical duet to a tune from "West Side Story."
His relations with the media are icy. He customarily bars critical reporters from covering his travels and kept a tight lid on information from his Foreign Ministry.
Primakov repeatedly turned down Yeltsin's requests to be prime minister but gave in when it was clear no other candidate could unravel Russia's political tangles, Kremlin officials said. One of his attractions to Yeltsin's rivals is that, unlike Chernomyrdin, he has never expressed ambitions to succeed Yeltsin, leaving the way open for themselves. The sentiment may be naive. If Primakov succeeds, there might be few who could deny him Russia's highest office.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company