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Meeting To Define Future Relations Between U.S. and Moscow

Prague, Jan. 26 (RFE/RL) - With U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher set to meet newly-appointed Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov at Helsinki in two week's time, some western analysts are noting a "cooling off" in Russia's relations with the West and a shift toward more nationalistic policies.

The U. S. State Department said yesterday that the meeting would "define a working relationship" between the two top officials and prepare an "agenda leading to the April U.S.- Russian summit." Primakov assumed the leadership of Russia's diplomacy on Jan. 9. He previously directed the country's foreign intelligence for more than four years.

Primakov has been portrayed by some western comentators as more authoritarian than his predecessor, Andrei Kozyrev. His style is said to be "sharp, unrefined, and without verbal embellishments," but strong and resolute.

The Russian media have emphasized that Primakov has a chance of becoming a "strong and influential minister" with newspapers like Novoye Vremya stressing his "professionalism."

There is, indeed, little doubt about Primakov's experience with foreign matters. He had served as a Soviet foreign correspondent in the Middle East during the 1960s and 1970s, and then spent many years in various Moscow think tanks specializing in international matters.

Neither is there any question about his nationalist credentials. Primakov was the first ranking Russian official to protest, in 1993, NATO's plans to expand in the east. As director of Russia's foreign intelligence service, he was also closely involved in safeguarding Moscow's dominant position in relations with the newly independent former Soviet republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The expansion of Moscow's influence in those areas appears to remain Primakov's main interest. "Russia's relations with CIS countries is a priority task of Russian foreign policy," he announced shortly after taking office. And he added that he would "do everything" to advance in this direction.

Tajikistan is the first foreign destination for the new minister. He is scheduled to visit Dushanbe this weekend. From there, Primakov is to go to Belarus, Russia's most loyal CIS supporter, and then to Ukraine, a much more difficult CIS ally. Ukrainian newspapers,such as Molod Ukrainy, expressed concern that Primakov's appointment may signal a change in Moscow's "strategic course" toward more "hard-line and aggressive" dealings with CIS countries.

Primakov has been silent until now about Moscow's goals in Central Europe. But he made clear during his first press conference that he remained opposed to NATO's expansion in that region. He said that the enlargement of the western political and security alliance would affect Moscow's geopolitical interests.

These geopolitical interests, defined in traditional terms of political influence, are likely, in effect, to turn into central issues in Russia's relations with the West.

Speaking two days ago at a session of the Foreign Ministry's Council on Foreign Economic Relations, Primakov said that "a new stage is beginning" in Russian foreign policy. This stage is to be more activist and expansive. And it is to focus on three main tasks: first, the preservation of Russia as a great power; second, the strengthening of its territorial integrity; and third, the all-round development of its regions.

None of these constitutes a departure from earlier policies. These tasks have reflected Moscow's principal goals for many years. And they have defined Russia's conduct in relations with CIS countries and western nations. Primakov's arrival merely suggests that these goals may now be pursued much more energetically and forcefully.