A Soviet heavyweight resurfaces A harder line: Yevgeni Primakov, whose Soviet resume includes a stint as a KGB big shot, is Russia's new foreign minister and a symbol of President Boris N. Yeltsin's election-year shift to the right.

Sun Journal

February 09, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Secretary of State Warren Christopher was in the habit of calling Russia's former foreign minister, Andrei V. Kozyrev, by his first name. But Mr. Christopher can count on a chillier relationship when he meets today in Helsinki with Mr. Kozyrev's successor, Yevgeni Primakov.

Mr. Primakov is a heavyweight from Soviet times, and his most recent work for President Boris N. Yeltsin has been as director of foreign intelligence operations. He is a no-nonsense professional who bears none of the reformist traits that made Mr. Kozyrev so attractive to the West. With Mr. Primakov, there will be neither first-name informality nor Western-tailored suits.

Mr. Primakov, 66, is among a group of pragmatists brought in to replace liberal reformers in President Yeltsin's government. They are figures who have cultivated political loyalty and professionalism rather than ideological roots, which has made them acceptable to Communists, nationalists and democrats alike.

The Kremlin's policies in matters ranging from foreign affairs to economics won't change, the government says. But the new faces clearly are meant to bring a different demeanor.

It is more conservative, more nationalistic. The change in tone -- from Mr. Primakov at the Foreign Ministry, economic chief Viktor Kadannikov, chief of staff Nikolai Yegorov and several lesser aides -- is a campaign tactic, say analysts.

The Yeltsin administration is looking to the presidential election in June and trying to take into account the nostalgia for the Soviet era, when people were financially safe in a world where Russia was a superpower. That nostalgia helped the Communists win elections to the Duma, or lower house of Parliament, in December.

"All of the appointments that came since December follow the same pattern," says Dmitry Trenin, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "They are dumping the people seen as representing a certain tendency no longer in vogue in Russia -- the democrats." The appointment of Mr. Primakov and Mr. Kadannikov (who was a Soviet automobile factory manager and is now one of the richest men in Russia) attracted little criticism at home, even among liberal democratic reformers. Mr. Yeltsin's new aides are a breed peculiar to the post-Communist world, where almost everyone experienced and old enough to be in politics served the Soviet system in some way.

But perhaps no one at the top level of government has as long and as successful a survival record as Mr. Primakov. He has held responsible positions continuously from the hard-line Communist era of Leonid Brezhnev to the years of perestroika under Mikhail S. Gorbachev through the rocky democratic reforms of Mr. Yeltsin.

"He's not considered anybody's man -- in fact, he was everyone's man," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a former democratic member of Parliament and now president of the Polity Foundation, a think tank. "So that makes him a perfect appointment."

It's difficult to find Russians critical of Mr. Primakov. But people knowledgeable about his career refer euphemistically to his "links" to the KGB, dating from his early career as a Middle Eastern specialist and journalist. Both of those professions were often used as covers for Soviet-era spies.

The fact that he became director of the KGB's foreign intelligence division with little internal controversy says a lot about his background, according to the Carnegie Center's Mr. Trenin.

"He's a Soviet-schooled apparatchik -- even the way he looks presents the Soviet Union -- and he projects very much that he's the kind of person that doesn't fool around," Mr. Trenin says.

To contrast Mr. Primakov with Mr. Kozyrev, Mr. Trenin cites two well-known examples of the former foreign minister's "fooling around":

Once, Mr. Kozyrev pleaded with Western diplomats not to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization because it might cause him to write his memoirs from a prison cell. On another oc

casion, he delivered a hard-line Cold War speech, shocking the audience of diplomats. He ended his remarks by saying the speech was a warning veiled as a joke.

Because Mr. Primakov is so different, says Mr. Trenin, "He may have a better chance of a good working relationship than Kozyrev did with the United States."

In the United States, he may be best known as the figure who upset the Bush administration in the weeks before the beginning of the Persian Gulf war. It was Mr. Primakov who traveled to Baghdad to try to develop a face-saving formula for Iraq's Saddam Hussein, a mission that U.S. officials saw as an attempt to undermine the West's military coalition.

Some U.S. officials were uneasy about his latest appointment -- concerned that an old-line spy master might move Russia back toward confrontation with the West. But diplomats in Moscow see Mr. Primakov's promotion as aimed mainly at soothing domestic wounds.

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