Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 73

President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to tap former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as his personal representative for finding a solution to the conflict in Yugoslavia is being interpreted in Moscow as having both a foreign policy and a domestic political dimension.

Chernomyrdin was named to the post yesterday by a presidential decree, after which he reportedly met with both Primakov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. A spokesman for Chernomyrdin was quoted as saying that the former premier would soon meet with top officials of “those countries which have a relationship to the conflict in the Balkans” (Russian agencies, April 14). Indeed, just prior to the official announcement of his appointment as special envoy, Chernomyrdin told a newspaper that he could be helpful as a mediator in the conflict: “I know all those people by face, and they know me,” he was quoted as saying (Izvestia, April 14).

Chernomyrdin’s elevation is apparently connected, at least in part, to Yeltsin’s dissatisfaction with the way in which members of his cabinet have been handling the crisis. Last week, for example, the president reportedly issued a “severe reprimand” both to Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and to Armed Forces Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin (and his deputy) for “warlike” comments concerning a possible Russian military reaction to NATO’s actions in the Balkans. Chernomyrdin, in contrast, has said that Russia should not “indulge in saber rattling” vis-a-vis Kosovo. Chernomyrdin was regarded as something of a “dove” during the war in Chechnya, and, in one memorable incident in June 1995, conducted a televised telephone conversation with Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev aimed at freeing hostages during the terrorist raid on the Russian town of Budyonnovsk.

Chernomyrdin is likely also to be more attractive to the West–and to Washington in particular–because he is not connected Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s current prime minister. Primakov, a former spy master and foreign minister, is viewed with some suspicion by Washington. Further, his current foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, has probably made few friends in the West with his strident, Cold-War-style denunciations of NATO over the past few weeks. Chernomyrdin has close contacts with key players in the Balkans crisis, especially in Washington– including, specifically, U.S. Vice President Gore, who was his counterpart on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. In addition, Chernomyrdin, formerly headed and is still involved with Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly, which gives him an important lever over Belgrade (Kommersant, April 15).