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Putin's Godfather

Primakov and Putin in May 2000
Primakov and Putin in May 2000

It was more than a eulogy. It was a man bidding farewell to his political godfather.

Speaking at the funeral of veteran politician Yevgeny Primakov, President Vladimir Putin called him "a great citizen of our country" who exemplified "true patriotism and selfless devotion to the fatherland."

And Putin had good reason to praise Primakov, one of the elder statesmen of Russian politics, who died on June 26 at the age of 85.

Without Primakov, there probably never would have been a Putin.

"Both chronologically and ideologically, Primakov is the godfather of Putinism in Russia," Moscow-based commentator Kyamran Agayev wrote in "He put in place the beginning of the twilight of the so-called romantic period of Russian democracy.”

A veteran of the Soviet security services, Primakov blazed the trail for siloviki rule in post-Soviet Russia. And many of the hallmarks of Putin's rule -- an anti-Western foreign policy, a state-heavy economy, Soviet-style controls on society -- were spearheaded by Primakov, who served as foreign minister from 1996-98 and prime minister from 1998-99.

"Primakov’s positions," veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble wrote on his blog, "were in fact a more sophisticated version of those Putin has adopted."

Primakov's decision in March 1999 to turn his airplane around over the Atlantic Ocean when he was en route to the United States after he learned that NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia had begun is widely seen as the start of the anti-Western turn in Moscow's foreign policy.

But opposition figure and former energy minister Vladimir Milov noted that the trend actually began earlier, when Primakov was named foreign minister, replacing the staunchly pro-Western Andrei Kozyrev, in January 1996.

“Already in 1996, when Primakov headed the foreign ministry, he laid the groundwork for an anti-American shift in Russian foreign policy,” Milov told the Ukrainian news agency Novy Region-2, noting that he lobbied heavily for the Kremlin to support Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. "Foreign Ministry documents written in an anti-American tone began to circulate."

Moreover, Putin's rise to power was intimately tied to Primakov. Or more accurately, to a fear of Primakov, who as prime minister famously threatened to build additional prisons so the Russian business elite could be incarcerated should he come to power.

By the late 1990s, especially following the 1998 financial crisis, Primakov was in sync with the public mood and had become the most popular politician in the country.

In 1999, he forged a powerful alliance with Yury Luzhkov, then Moscow's mayor, and other regional leaders and appeared to be the odds-on favorite to succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin as president.

Yeltsin's inner circle, informally dubbed "The Family," desperately wanted to prevent this. And to fend it off, they decided they needed their very own silovik -- somebody who could defeat Primakov, succeed Yeltsin, and protect their interests.

They settled on Putin, and the rest is history.

The irony, of course, is that in drafting Putin to neutralize the Primakov threat, The Family ended up with a younger, coarser -- albeit more telegenic -- version of...Primakov.

It was a miscalculation that key Family members, most notably oligarch Boris Berezovsky, would soon regret.

There are, of course, important differences between the two men, and a Primakov presidency would probably not have mirrored Putin's.

It is hard to imagine, for example, the kind of loose nuclear rhetoric that has become common in Putin's Kremlin coming from Primakov -- who hails from the generation of Soviet officials who had a deep respect for and understanding of Moscow's responsibilities as a nuclear power.

In eulogizing Primakov, Putin noted that Russian officials "consulted him," sought his advice, and listened to him.

"I can say this is also entirely true about me," Putin said.

Well, not entirely.

In one his his last public acts, Primakov in January urged Putin to wind down the Ukraine conflict and ease tensions with the West.

It was advice that Putin, obviously, did not heed.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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