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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Promotion Of Primakov


Prague, 10 September 1998 (RFE/RL) - Boris Yeltsin's decision today to nominate Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov as his prime minister is already sending shockwaves through Russia, Russia's neighbors, and the international community at large.

But while this appointment may give the crisis-ridden Russian regime some room for maneuver in all three of these areas, it is unlikely by itself to resolve the underlying problems now confronting the Russian Federation.

By turning away from the obviously unpopular and apparently unconfirmable Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin has once again shown his ability to maneuver best precisely when he is under the most intense political pressure.

But if Yeltsin's decision to promote Primakov was somewhat unexpected, it nonetheless reflects three aspects of Yeltsin's general political style.

First of all, the Russian president again has taken what many are certain to call a dramatic step only after denying that he would do it.

Second, he has selected someone who may be able to recoup some of Russia's lost authority and influence in the West, a clear signal that Yeltsin still hopes to gain more Western aid even as he advances someone popular with many Russian nationalists at home. And third, Yeltsin has chosen someone with little experience in precisely the areas -- economics and domestic affairs -- a Russian prime minister is supposed to direct.

That last fact makes it likely that Primakov will face fewer obstacles to being confirmed. After all, Duma factions from the communists to the reformers are likely to believe that they will be able to convince Primakov to advance their agendas.

But precisely for that reason, Primakov's appointment may not affect the ways in which Moscow now conducts business. To the extent that proves to be so, Primakov's appointment ultimately may not matter as much as some hope and others fear.

The most obvious consequences of Primakov's appointment are likely to be in Moscow and the Russian Federation. Russian politicians of various stripes are already viewing Primakov's appointment as a victory or at least a concession by Yeltsin to the growing power of the parliament.

Moreover, his appointment is likely to attract new candidates for the race to succeed Yeltsin. Many of the increasingly important parliamentary deputies and governors seem certain to consider running.

And ordinary Russians are certain to welcome the appointment of someone known for his toughness and staunch defense of Russian national interests.

But even if these developments give Primakov a certain honeymoon in Moscow, they will not do anything to address Russia's economic collapse or the growing political disorder across the country as a whole.

To address those problems, Primakov must not only craft a new set of policies but also reinvent the Russian government. Doing one or the other would be difficult for anyone.

But having to do both at the same time almost certainly means that Primakov 's approach is likely to be an amalgam of various views, a pattern that has gotten Russia into trouble in the past and that may get Primakov into trouble more quickly than many expect.

If the exact direction Primakov is likely to take domestically remains unclear, his approach to Russia's neighbors and to the West is certainly far clearer.

Although Primakov has been foreign minister at a time when Russia power has declined in the former Soviet republics, he has been a forceful advocate of the view that Moscow must remain the dominant player in these countries.

To the extent that he is able, he is certain to continue to advocate a tough approach to the neighbors. But Russia's weakness and Moscow's need to attract Western assistance may combine to force him to moderate his past approach.

But perhaps Primakov's greatest role in the future will be one that he has already starred in: stoutly defending Russian national interests even while befriending Western leaders.

Over his long career in the Middle East, as a Moscow think tank head and as foreign minister, Primakov has pushed for a very forward Russian policy, one designed to take advantage of any Western weakness.

Not surprisingly, many of his speeches and articles in the past have been openly anti-Western and anti-American. But despite this trend, Primakov has been remarkably successful in winning the friendship of Western leaders and gaining their confidence.

Primakov's very public ties with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are only the most recent example. And such attachments have allowed Primakov to obtain more assistance from the West than his views would seem to justify.

Both he and Yeltsin clearly hope that Primakov will once again be able to work his magic, especially given the recent acknowledgement by Russian officials that they had lied about conditions there in order to gain Western aid.

No Western leader wants Russia to fail. And consequently, the West is likely to respond more positively to a charm offensive by Primakov than it would have to any steps by a restored but rather dour Chernomyrdin.

But unless Primakov can turn things around in Russia, an apparently Herculean task, he and his patron are likely to discover that Primakov's ability to woo Western leaders may not matter nearly as much as either man hopes.
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