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
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
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
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.