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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Can Russian Diplomacy Hold Russia Together?

Washington, 23 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In one of his last speeches as foreign minister, Russia's new Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov argued that Russian diplomacy's major tasks include the maintenance of that country's territorial integrity.

In acknowledging the extent of the difficulties Russia now faces, Primakov joins a growing number of Russian political figures who have suggested that the future of their country in its current borders may be in doubt.

But Primakov's remarks, published in the latest issue of the Russian foreign relations journal "International Affairs," represent something more than that. They provide three important clues to the approach Primakov appears likely to adopt as he puts together his government.

First, in sharp contrast to most other Russians similarly worried about the integrity of their country, Primakov suggests that an active diplomacy may be just as important as domestic policy in helping to hold the Russian Federation together.

Specifically, he suggests that Moscow can take the lead in putting together a new international coalition against the principle of national self-determination "up to separation."

Primakov suggests that Russia should first of all draw on the support of other states facing separatist challenges. Because of their own difficulties, such countries will be especially interested in limiting the applicability of national self-determination in Russia as well.

And then the Russian leader suggests that Moscow should seek the backing of Western countries who may not face ethnic challenges themselves but who are worried about the possibility that acts of self-determination might lead to expanded refugee flows.

Second, Primakov suggests that Russia's territorial integrity and stability will be promoted by an intensification of ties among the former Soviet republics that now form the Commonwealth of Independent States.

He argues that "no European stability and security are possible if they are absent from the post-Soviet space." And in this way, he implicitly suggests that Western countries must support CIS integration, something many of them have expressed doubts about, if they are want Russian stability, something all of them back.

And third, Primakov repeats Moscow's opposition to any new dividing lines in Europe, including ones that he says would be created by the expansion of NATO.

On the one hand, his remarks on this point offer little that is new. But on the other, his linkage of Moscow's opposition to NATO expansion with the notion that Russia will find it "hard, if not impossible" to pursue democratic change "without an active foreign policy" adds a potentially persuasive element in Moscow's case against the Western alliance.

Indeed, by implying that NATO expansion could have an impact on Russia's borders and not just on Russia's political direction as many other Moscow leaders have asserted, Primakov is likely to gain support on this point from Western leaders who may not fear a change in government in Moscow but would fear the consequences of a Russian in dissolution.

When Primakov made these remarks, he was responsible for foreign policy and consequently he was naturally inclined to highlight the role of foreign policy activities. And now that he is prime minister, he has a broader role and possibly a different one.

But Primakov has displayed a remarkable consistency in approach over his career, even as it has taken him in many apparently different directions. And consequently, these indications of how he may seek to enlist international support against the disintegration of his country are likely to guide him in the future.

To the extent they do, Primakov may have a powerful new lever to block the dissolution of his country. But if he attempts to rely on that lever alone, he is likely to find, as did Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev seven years ago, that Western support for the territorial integrity of his country may prove less significant than he believes.