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Spy Chief Takes Over Russia's Foreign Ministry

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, Jan. 10 (RFE/RL) - The appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as Russia's new foreign minister confirms Moscow's move away from a European and American-focused foreign policy toward one that tries to enhance Russia as a Eurasian power.

With the political resurgence of communists and nationalists, this trend had been noted by analysts. Since Andrei Kozyrev's resignation from the foreign minister's post last Friday, speculation on a successor had centered on a handful of well-known public figures. Primakov was not on most analysts' lists.

But now that Boris Yeltsin has put Primakov in the post, the appointment seems like a natural fit. In the shadowy world of Kremlin politics, Primakov is the consummate insider - a man with close ties to the intelligence community who has spent a lifetime rising through the ranks, relying on his academic knowledge, shrewdness and personal contacts.

The 66-year-old Primakov speaks fluent Arabic and holds a degree in Arabic studies from the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow. He served as a Middle East correspondent for the Soviet daily Pravda in the 1960s and later became an academic -- though he was always better known as a "diplomat" than a passionate scholar.

Primakov became head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence service in the autumn of 1991. He remained there until his appointment as foreign minister. Under Gorbachev, Primakov was a foreign-policy adviser to the Soviet leader. He served as the advance man at several Soviet-American summits. But Primakov played his most public role as Mikhail Gorbachev's personal emissary to Baghdad, when he held one-on-one talks with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to avert the Gulf War. Primakov stood by Gorbachev during the failed putsch of 1991, but was able to move seamlessly onto Yeltsin's team after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rumors have long circulated that Primakov quietly passed information to Yeltsin during Gorbachev's final months in office to ensure his loyalty.

Primakov is, at heart, a pragmatist and a skilled negotiator who is at home in both Asia and the West. Although siding with Yeltsin, he has cultivated a reputation as somewhat of a hard-liner. That will make him palatable to the parliament's nationalist and Communist factions. During his stint as intelligence chief, Primakov issued a report accusing the West of trying to prevent Russia from becoming a great power. Last year, in a rare interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, Primakov said intelligence gathering was vital to protecting Russia's national interest.

Leading politicians yesterday praised Primakov's appointment. Vladimir Lukin, head of the previous Duma's foreign relations committee and a former ambassador to the United States said: "Primakov knows the East and West well. He understands what Russia's real priorities are. He is for cooperation but for real cooperation, not for giving ground."

Although outgoing foreign minister Kozyrev had adopted a more nationalistic tone during the past two years, anti-reformists despised him and accused him of selling out to the West. Many of his colleagues within the foreign ministry resented the loss of prestige that Kozyrev had brought on their institution.

It remains to be seen how much prestige and authority the Russian foreign ministry can regain - and how much decision-making power will fall to Yeltsin's new Kremlin-based foreign policy council.

As Scott Parish, a Russian analyst at the Prague-based Open Media Research Institute notes: "Being Russia's foreign minister right now is a politically thankless task. Russia is weak but the nationalists in the parliament think Russia is strong. As foreign minister, the job is to constantly try to bridge that reality gap." Parish said any foreign minister in Russia is "bound to get caught holding the bag at some point." But so far, Primakov has built a career on his ability to never be outmaneuvered.