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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Primakov's Nineteenth Century Model

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov has identified his nineteenth century predecessor Aleksandr Gorchakov as a model for Moscow's approach to the world in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a speech on the 200th anniversary of Gorchakov's birth published in the current issue of the Russian foreign policy journal "International Affairs," Primakov notes that Gorchakov was able to rebuild Russia's power and influence after its defeat in the Crimean War with Great Britain.

When Gorchakov assumed office after that defeat in 1856, Primakov argues, many people "thought that they were present at a funeral for the Russian Empire, or at any rate witnessing its turning into a second-rate power."

As Primakov notes, such a conclusion seemed reasonable: The Crimean War had demonstrated a variety of internal weaknesses in the Russian Empire. Most of the important powers were "rallied against Russia." And the North Caucasian leader Shamil was able to stage a daring raid into Russia itself.

Given these obstacles, Primakov points out, many in the Russian Empire argued that it had to turn inward, "resign its great power status," and accept the leadership of others. That had been the policy of Gorchakov's predecessor Count Nesselrode, who went so far as to propose abolishing the foreign ministry altogether.

But Gorchakov urged "a different course of action," one that Primakov not only approves of but argues should be a model for Russian actions in the future.

According to Primakov, Gorchakov believed that "a vigorous foreign policy" was essential for creating the conditions that would allow Russia to renew itself at home and regain influence abroad.

And over the next 30 years, Primakov says, Gorchakov did just that, far more successfully than many of his contemporaries assumed he could.

Primakov draws five lessons from Gorchakov's approach, lessons that he argues should guide Moscow's actions today.

First, Primakov says, Gorchakov demonstrated that Russia, even when weakened by defeat, can pursue an active foreign policy. Indeed, Primakov insists, his predecessor showed that it has no other choice. Second, Gorchakov insisted that Russian foreign policy must not be limited to a single direction or area of concern. Instead, it must seek to be active in all areas.

Third, as Primakov notes with approval, Gorchakov had no doubt that Russia at all times has "enough strength" to play a leading role in the world.

Fourth, Gorchakov understood that Russia could always exploit the resentment many smaller powers inevitably feel at larger ones to rebuild and then expand its own influence.

And fifth, Gorchakov's actions provide one negative lesson. According to Primakov, Gorchakov's maneuvering among the great powers of Europe is now "out of date." Instead, Primakov notes, Moscow must seek constructive partnerships with all countries rather than seeking some "mobile" or permanent coalition.

Together, these five principles show that Gorchakov understood what Primakov argues is the fundamental basis of Russian foreign policy: "there are no constant enemies but there are constant national interests."

According to Primakov, that principle means that Russian foreign policy must adopt a balanced approach, neither advancing "excessive claims" that fail to recognize what has happened in the last decade nor setting "deliberately low standards" that ignore Moscow's continuing possibilities.

And it also means, Primakov continues, that Russia will not seek improved relations with what he calls "the 'civilized West' at any cost."

In his concluding remarks, Primakov focuses on one foreign policy area where Gorchakov's approach would seem not to apply but in fact does.

As Primakov points out, his nineteenth century predecessor was "striving to consolidate the Russian Empire's territorial integrity." Now, Primakov acknowledges, the situation has changed: both the Empire and the Soviet Union are "gone" and he argues that "the present reality is such that sovereignty of the ex-USSR republics should not be subject to any doubt."

But at the same time, Primakov concludes, Moscow must do everything it can to bring "the states formed on the territory of the former Soviet Union" closer together through economic integration and "the creation of a single economic area."

Many people in both these countries and the West are likely to see such a proposal as anything but reassuring, particularly since Primakov advances it even as he praises one of 19th century Russia's most passionate defenders of empire.