Washington, 29 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Conflicting statements by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his foreign minister, Yevgeniy Primakov, concerning the state of relations between Moscow and the West raise some questions about Russian foreign policy intentions in 1998.
In his New Year's messages to foreign leaders, Yeltsin said that Russia's inclusion in the G-7 group of major economic powers -- which now becomes effectively the G-8 -- and progress on disarmament were evidence of "effective Russian-American cooperation."
But in his year-end assessment, Primakov adopted a very different tone. Speaking to a press conference last Tuesday, the Russian foreign minister suggested that Moscow's effort to form a strategic partnership with the West had failed.
He even suggested that the idea of such cooperation has "lost its luster with time" and that "such ties had started turning into those between patron and client," a relationship Russia could never find acceptable.
And Primakov said that Russia not only remained opposed to any eastward expansion of NATO but was actively considering the extension of Russian security guarantees to those countries in Central and Eastern Europe not offered membership in the Western alliance.
Despite coexisting in the same government, the two men have often been at odds in the past on a wide variety of foreign policy issues. But seldom has the distance between the two been so great on an issue of fundamental importance. And that raises three interrelated questions:
First, does this difference between Yeltsin and Primakov presage a break between the two? Second, is this split simply a tactic designed to compensate for Russia's current weakness? And third, what does this difference portend for Russian foreign policy, especially if Yeltsin is incapacitated for significant periods of time during the next year?
In virtually any other country, a public division this deep between the president and his top foreign policy aide would presage the rapid departure of the latter from office. No president with executive responsibility for foreign affairs could be expected to tolerate what must appear to other leaders as open insubordination.
One explanation for Primakov's continued survival is that he reflects a part of the Russian political spectrum that Yeltsin cannot or will not challenge even if he personally disagrees with it. Yeltsin appointed Primakov to placate the nationalists in the Russian parliament and the Russian population; he may not be able to fire him even if he wants to.
If that interpretation is correct, Primakov may be able to continue in office for some time. A second interpretation is that he is in trouble and that he is speaking out now precisely to drum up support for himself among his traditional allies. If that is the case, Russia may have a new foreign minister sooner rather than later.
But yet a third interpretation, increasingly heard both in Moscow and the West is that this public disagreement is simply a clever tactic, with Yeltsin playing the part of the sympathetic good cop while Primakov plays the bad cop.
According to that scenario, the two men have agreed to their assigned roles with each gaining as a result. Yeltsin can approach the West as a friend with the not so implicit warning -- the voice of Primakov -- that another and less sympathetic Russia is possible if the West does not give him what he wants.
If that is the case, the two men have more in common than a superficial reading of their speeches might suggest. And no one should expect a fundamental change in the direction of Russian foreign policy anytime soon.
But even if the two men are playing these roles -- and that is far from certain -- they do have very different ideas at least on the basis of their public remarks. And that in turn raises the issue of just where Primakov might take Russian foreign policy if Yeltsin is incapacitated for an extended period as has often been the case in the last year.
If Yeltsin were to pass from the scene, a new Russian government might decided to replace Primakov or alternatively to back him fully. But if Yeltsin is simply not in full control of the situation, Primakov may be in a position to act ever more independently.
That could have the effect of making Primakov statement this week a self-fulfilling prophecy -- and also of undermining any chance for Yeltsin's more hopeful one.