Working old superpower magic Deal-maker: Some Russians hope that their foreign minister's deal to defuse the crisis with Iraq over United Nations weapons inspections will help restore Russia's image as a world power.

Sun Journal

November 21, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- A glow of satisfaction was radiating from some official Moscow circles yesterday, thanks to Russia's jowly foreign minister, who had taken out the old, rusting superpower credentials and burnished them a bit by defusing a world crisis over Iraq.

Yevgeny M. Primakov had wrung a promise from Iraq to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to proceed with their work, apparently heading off what could have turned into an armed confrontation if Iraq had persisted in refusing to allow Americans in as part of the inspection team.

Primakov has been involved -- his critics would say meddling -- in the Middle East for 30 years, so it was the obvious place for him to exert the kind of influence that would restore the luster to Russia's world-power image.

The foreign minister, 68, speaks fluent Arabic. He was a spy in the 1950s, working under the cover of Pravda Middle East correspondent. He is an old friend of Saddam Hussein -- they met in 1969 -- which obviously helped him strike a deal with the Iraqi president. He was head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, a KGB successor, before becoming foreign minister.

It's not difficult to imagine what American conservatives think of him.

"Boris Yeltsin's choice of the amiable snake who headed his espionage agency signals the end of Mr. Nice Guy in Russian diplomacy," conservative columnist William Safire wrote after Primakov was appointed foreign minister in January 1996.

In another world, perhaps, Safire and Primakov would be soul mates. They both describe themselves as conservatives. But in this world, Safire is still suspicious of Russia, and Primakov is still suspicious of the United States. Yeltsin chose Primakov to placate his Communist critics, who loathed the previous foreign minister, Andrei V. Kozyrev, for being too liberal and cozy with the West.

Some Russian liberals say Primakov's only ideology is ambition, and that while many people gave up during the Soviet years, he was worse -- he gave in, changing his name to protect himself from anti-Jewish discrimination, taking up spying, segueing gracefully from favor with Leonid I. Brezhnev, the 1970s-era premier, to favor with Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the 1980s to favor with Boris N. Yeltsin in the 1990s.

Other Russians see him as a professional who can get the job done, and that job is forcefully representing Russia's interests abroad. They are weary of feeling that the end of the Cold War left the United States in charge of the world, and they hope Primakov's success means Russia is regaining its influence as a world power.

"It will help restore not the strength of the Soviet Union because that strength was based on military might," says Vladimir P. Averchev, a liberal member of the Duma's Foreign Relations Committee. "Today, if it increases Russia's authority, it will be based on diplomatic skill. We will hope for that."

Averchev says he is pleased that Primakov's success involved cooperation with other nations.

"It's an example of Russia, the United States and other major powers acting in coordination in a very difficult world crisis," he says. "It's success in a very difficult situation. I hope it's also a sign of a change in the American approach to international crises. What worried me was the tendency of the United States to take unilateral action on the basis of its position as the only remaining superpower."

Viktor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Institute of the U.S. and Canada in Moscow, says Primakov is sending a message that many Russians believe in.

"They feel disappointed with the results of the partnership with the U.S.," he says. "They feel it was a big mistake to tie foreign policy and hopes to the United States. Now Russia feels more active and close to China, Iran, Iraq and India. It wants to play the role of a great power, without any conflict with the U.S., of course."

If the United States doesn't trust Primakov's brand of assertiveness, that's too bad, Kremenyuk says. The United States should have thought of that when it was ignoring Russia's protests over the expansion of NATO. "I don't think any American distrust of Mr. Primakov is a problem for Russian foreign policy. That's a problem for America to resolve."

Kremenyuk says Russia's attitude toward the Middle East stems from a confluence of interests, including Primakov's personal relationships and prestige there and Russia's desire to get Iraq to pay its debts. While the United Nations has been punishing Hussein by limiting his oil exports, Russia has had no hope of collecting any of the $8 billion Iraq owes Moscow. Libya owes it $4 billion and Syria $2 billion.

"I'm sure all of this has contributed to Russia's desire for Middle East involvement," Kremenyuk says. "And there is also a desire to make Russia sound like a great power again."

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