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Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov Dies

Yevgeny Primakov (1929-2015)

Yevgeny Primakov, a former Russian prime minister, foreign minister, and spy chief known for his assertive diplomacy and a desperate attempt to avert NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, has died at age 85.

The cause of Primakov's death was not immediately clear, although he was known to have been battling cancer. A Kremlin statement on June 26 said he died in Moscow, and state-run news agency RIA quoted his grandson Yevgeny Sandro as saying "it happened today."

President Vladimir Putin offered "deep condolences" to Primakov's family and friends, the tatement said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin considered him "a statesman, a scholar, and a politician who has left a very big legacy."

A deliberate speaker whose lumbering manner seemed mismatched to an active mind and diplomatic dexterity, Primakov was a prominent figure throughout the era of Russia's first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin.

Born in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in 1929, Primakov was brought up in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

He graduated as an Arabic scholar from the Moscow Institute for Oriental Studies in 1953 and went on to be a foreign correspondent, spending years reporting from the Middle East from Soviet state media -- a role widely seen as a cover for spy work.

After holding several academic positions, he entered the political stage in the late 1980s and became chairman of one of the chambers of the Soviet parliament in 1989, helping spearhead Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's political reforms.

Primakov played a key role in Russia's unsuccessful efforts to prevent the 1991 Gulf War -- something that led a senior U.S. official in 2003 to say Primakov had been "a pain in the neck" at the time. Drawing on his deep knowledge of the Middle East, Gorbachev sent him to Baghdad to negotiate with leader Saddam Hussein.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was falling apart, he was named head of Russia's foreign intelligence service (SVR), and held the job for five years before becoming foreign minister in 1996.

'A Political Giant'

As top diplomat at a time when Russia was stinging from the loss of its Soviet empire, Primakov was seen as a staunch but realistic supporter of Moscow's interests. He was a prominent voice in Russia's opposition to perceived U.S. dominance and advocacy of a "multipolar" world.

Named prime minister in 1998 as Yeltsin struggled with political rifts in the Russian elite in the wake of an economic collapse, Primakov was credited with restoring a degree of stability, although his opponents accused him of freezing economic reforms.

Prominent liberal politician Irina Khakamada says Primakov was a political giant who left a deep imprint on Russia.

"He was extremely visionary about the world, generally," she told RFE/RL. "Both in parliament and in the government, he always asked very sharp questions and did not belong to any camp. The answers to these questions determined the country's future."

In the West and in Russia, Primakov is best known for his hard-hitting diplomatic moves.

In 1999, as prime minister, he ordered his U.S.-bound plane to turn around over the Atlantic Ocean after learning that NATO had begun a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis.

He called the bombing an "enormous historic mistake" -- a view that is often echoed to this day in Russia, where the NATO campaign figures in Putin's portrayal of the United States as a dangerous global bully. The famous midflight turnaround bolstered his popularity at home and is widely considered a watershed moment in Russia's foreign policy.

But Yury Kobaladze, a journalist and former colleague of Primakov at the SVR, says Primakov's decision to turn the plane around was anything but impulsive.

"I worked at [Russian news agency] TASS at the time, I was the deputy director-general and I followed the events," he said. "It was not a spontaneous decision. He warned the Americans that he could not visit if the bombing started. I know that, prior to this, he also informed then-President Yeltsin about his decision, and that this decision was approved."

Eclipsed By Putin

Yeltsin eventually sacked Primakov in May 1999 in what many saw as an attempt to get rid of an increasingly influential and popular rival.

Primakov aligned himself with a populist political bloc and indicated that he would run in the 2000 presidential election.

Initially seen as a chief candidate to succeed Yeltsin, he was eclipsed by Putin, whose rise to prominence amid Kremlin intrigues and war in Chechnya was cemented when Yeltsin stepped down on December 31, 1999 and named him acting president.

Putin, whose power was cemented by his election to the presidency in March 2000, occasionally tapped into Primakov's expertise.

In 2003, he appointed Primakov as his envoy to Iraq and sent him on another mission -- again unsuccessful -- to talk to Hussein and try to avert war.

Primakov was also among those who tried to mediate with Chechen terrorists who seized hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater in 2002.

Primakov's prominence diminished in recent years. But he made a splash in January when he called on the Kremlin to diversify the Russian economy and recognize war-torn Donbas as part of Ukraine, adding that Russia should be open to cooperation with NATO and the United States.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Yevgenia Nazarets, AP, Reuters, AFP, and Interfax