Clearer signals from Moscow Yevgeni Primakov: No friend of the West, but new foreign minister has allies in Moscow.

January 14, 1996

IN THE DRAMATIC final days of the collapsing Soviet Union, Andrei Kozyrev was being squired around Paris by U.S. diplomats. In euphoric television interviews the Russian foreign ministry official prematurely talked about how Washington and Moscow would be natural allies in the post-communist era. He even proposed his country might join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

This was nothing but naivete. Whether allies or foes, big powers seldom have a unanimity of opinion. Just review the tortuous history of relations between the United States and France and their frequent squabbling about NATO.

Nevertheless, the openly pro-Western Mr. Kozyrev became President Boris N. Yeltsin's foreign minister. Although Mr. Kozyrev's political enemies repeatedly tried to have him ousted, he survived to be the longest-serving key Yeltsin cabinet member. His recent election to the Russian parliament finally made him ineligible to stay in the cabinet and provided for his replacement by Mr. Primakov, a wily academic, former newspaperman and one-time Gorbachev foreign policy adviser, who in recent years has directed Moscow's espionage operations abroad.

Because of his background, Mr. Primakov will have instant credibility both among Moscow's warring political factions and in foreign capitals. His expertise in Middle Eastern affairs -- and his fluency in Arabic -- are intriguing added dimensions. As foreign minister, Mr. Kozyrev was a mercurial figure. He lacked a natural political base in Moscow. That he lasted as long as he did was a miracle.

Mr. Primakov enters the stage at a time when a neo-communist-nationalist coalition is surging in Russia. He may not be among its members, but some of his friends are. To the hardliners he will be a palatable choice, a man who is likely to reintroduce tough talk to Russian-American relations.

Mr. Primakov's blunt rhetoric may be roil Westerners. But if tough words are enough to keep the hardliners in check, that is a small price for President Yeltsin to pay if he can continue pragmatism at home and abroad in the five months remaining before Russia's presidential elections.

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