Russian Duma Approves Primakov
By Daniel Williams
The speedy vote in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, was 315 for Primakov and 63 against, with 15 abstentions. Communists and conservative farm parties joined with centrists and economic liberals in endorsing the 68-year-old former foreign minister and spymaster.
In a speech just before the vote, Primakov said he had yet to work out a detailed economic plan. Nonetheless, his first two appointments, of Soviet-era bureaucrats, indicated a sharp turn away from the free-market approach that has dominated Russian economic policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yuri Maslyukov, a former head of central planning in the Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev, will be deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, and Viktor Gerashchenko, a Soviet-style central banker, will head the Central Bank.
The Duma's quick approval of Primakov, chosen by President Boris Yeltsin only Thursday, reflected the sense of urgency brought on by Russia's swift decline since its Aug. 17 devaluation of the ruble and default on its domestic debt. Tens of thousands of citizens have been deprived of access to bank savings, and shoppers have mobilized in panic buying, sweeping store shelves clean. The ruble, which has lost more than half its value since the devaluation, is in wild gyration, and Russia's stock market is at its lowest level ever.
With Primakov's confirmation, Russia regained a full government for the first time in nearly three weeks. Yeltsin fired prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko on Aug. 23 and then twice tried unsuccessfully to win the Duma's approval for Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was Kiriyenko's predecessor. By naming Primakov, Yeltsin defused a confrontation that threatened the disbanding of the Duma for failing to approve Chernomyrdin on a possible third ballot, as well as an attempt by the parliament to impeach the president.
In his first speech to the legislators, Primakov pleaded for "unity to come out of this very grave crisis." And he offered a warning: "I'll tell you in advance," he intoned. "I'm no magician."
Yeltsin, in his first comments on the nomination, said in televised remarks that Primakov will succeed because he has the support of both the president and the Duma. He urged the new government to take steps to stabilize prices, end shortages and shore up the failing banking system.
Primakov confirmed that his government would take a greater hand in directing the economy. "The state must interfere in and regulate many processes in the economy," he declared, adding that "this is not a return to the command system."
Speaking in Russian with the pronounced accent of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, he painted himself in the image of Franklin D. Roosevelt. "It has not occurred to anyone to condemn the U.S., for example, when Roosevelt introduced some elements of state regulation into the economy after the Great Depression," he said. "So, we do not have to copy some wild capitalism from the past."
Primakov pledged reform, saying that "only with the continuation of reform do we have a way out of this current situation." But the word "reform" in Russia is used by all political leaders, regardless of whether they mean a tight money policy to keep inflation in check or a policy of flooding the country with devalued rubles printed by the state.
Reform, Primakov said, must be used "for the development of industry." Later, he explained that support for domestic producers will be a priority, but not so much that Russian industry "would not have to think about quality or price." Stability, he added, "cannot and should not be an end in itself."
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, savoring success in his party's standoff with Yeltsin, praised Primakov for setting out on a "qualitatively different" economic program. He called for price controls, steps to increase workers' salaries and reductions in the cost of electricity and transportation.
Outside Russia, Primakov is best known for his policy of distancing Russia from American global leadership. He barely touched on foreign policy today but vowed to protect national interests. There would be no return to the Cold War, he said, adding that "we will not be washing our jackboots in any seas."
On an issue important to the Clinton administration, Primakov pressed the Duma to ratify the START II nuclear arms control treaty, which the U.S. Senate already has ratified. He also repeated his opposition to NATO expansion.
Primakov's record in foreign policy included an effort to rebuild Russia's influence in the world. Today, he suggested that one of Russia's weaknesses is the creeping independence of regions and threats of separatism. He emphasized the need for Moscow to consolidate power. "We will not support . . . attempts to ignore central leadership," he declared.
Primakov, a former KGB intelligence chief and, under Yeltsin, head of foreign intelligence, handled questions from the Duma calmly. Most of the queries were straightforward and without the hostility shown to Chernomyrdin during his two efforts at confirmation. Primakov even flashed the sly wit for which he is known in private.
When someone asked about the influence of officials carrying dual passports -- an apparent reference to Russians holding Israeli citizenship -- Primakov said he had ways of finding out. "After all, I handled one of the special services for 4 1/2 years," he said to laughter.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company