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Russia's Foreign Minister Primakov Sets New Tone

  • Paul Goble

Washington, March 7 (RFE/RL) - Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov has begun to give specific content to the "new look" in Moscow's foreign policy.

In an interview with Izvestiya on Wednesday, Primakov argues -- as has Russian President Boris Yeltsin -- that Moscow must "more vigorously and effectively" defend Russia's interests but do so in a way that will not reignite a new "cold war."

More specifically, he suggests that Russia must again become a counterweight to Western and especially American power, that Moscow should press for tighter integration of the former Soviet space, and that Russia can begin to rebuild its international position by seeking allies in Asia and the Middle East rather than in the West. All three of these ideas pose serious challenges to Western and specifically American interests.

Appointed because many in Russia felt that his predecessor Andrei Kozyrev had been too deferential to Washington and the West, Primakov has consistently argued that Moscow must be tougher in defending its state interests. In his latest interview, he rejects any form of "strategic alliance" with "former Cold War adversaries," argues that Russia must become an international "counterweight" to those adversaries, and warns that any enlargement of NATO would inevitably lead to a revival of the Russian military and a more assertive Russian policy in Eastern Europe.

Moreover, he demands that Russia be allowed back into regional negotiations such as those in the Middle East in recognition of its power in the world. But reflecting Russian weakness, he carefully does not name Moscow's "adversaries" in the Cold War, says he wanted to avoid direct conflicts with the West, and notes that Russia in reality lacks the ability to veto NATO enlargement.

Similarly, Primakov advocates a much tougher line than his predecessor on the reintegration of the former Soviet Union. Not only does he speak about the "parts of the former Soviet Union" rather than simply the CIS -- something the non-CIS Baltic states are certain to find disturbing -- but he argues that further economic reform requires this integration, thus suggestiong to the West that it would be undermining Russia's transformation unless it backed or at least did not oppose Moscow's efforts to reintegrate the former Soviet republics.

But reflecting an awareness of the fears of many in these newly independent states and the sensitivities of many in the West, the Russian foreign minister again denies that Moscow is behaving as an "imperialist" power. Instead, he says, the impetus for reintegration comes "from all sides," not just from Russia.

And finally, Primakov suggests that Russia should be looking South and East for allies rather than to the West. Within the CIS, he argues for closer ties to the Central Asian countries, dismissing the suggestions of many Russian commentators that there has been a "revival of feudalism there" and that Russian involvement with those countries would only weigh Russia down.

Primakov's words may be the intellectual foundation of the announcement also on Wednesday that Yeltsin will propose the closer integration of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan -- significantly, not Ukraine -- later this month.

Beyond the CIS, Primakov argues that Russia must become a supporter of those countries in the Middle East who are concerned about Washington's domination of the peace process and who want Moscow back in.

This last point may prove to be the most important part of Primakov's agenda. A longtime Middle East hand with close ties to a wide variety of Arab and Iranian leaders -- perhaps not accidentally Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati will be visiting Moscow this week -- Primakov clearly believes that he can begin to recoup Moscow's international position by getting involved in precisely that region.

Given Moscow's dependence on oil and gas exports for hard currency earnings and the benefits that Russia would gain were the price of oil and gas to rise, Primakov's words suggest that Moscow at least wants to raise the spectre of a new geopolitical competition in the Middle East as a way of putting pressure on Western Europe which relies heavily on Russian natural gas and on the U.S. which very much wants the peace process in the Middle East to continue. Whether he or Moscow as a whole can make good on this implied threat, of course, remains an open question.

But before anyone draws too apocalytpic conclusions from Primakov's words, three observations are in order. Together, they suggest that it may be a long way from an Izvestiya interview to actual Russian foreign policy action.

First, Primakov's interview reflects the policy preferences of only one actor -- albeit a very important one -- within a Russian government still very much divided on these and other questions.

Second, the foreign minister's words, even to the extent that they do reflect the policies of the government as a whole, are a statement of intentions rather than a reflection of Moscow's ability to realize them.

And third, Primakov's interview, like his appointment in the first place, comes during Yeltsin's re-election campaign and thus may be directed as much at disgruntled Russian voters as at their ostensible targets.

To say all this, however, is not to trivialize what Primakov has said or to suggest that the West should fail to respond. Whatever some may say, words do matter -- and especially in international affairs. They set the tone for discourse among countries and, unchallenged, open the way to action. In his latest interview, Primakov has laid down the gauntlet. The coming weeks will show whether the West will respond by defending its interests precisely when Moscow is more vigrously defending its own.