Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 62

Russian officials yesterday vehemently denied a U.S. magazine report alleging that, in 1997, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov had accepted a US$800,000 payment from the Iraqi government. In the article, which appears in the latest issue of the “New Yorker,” Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Seymour Hersh quotes high-level American intelligence sources. They reportedly claimed that a British signals-intelligence unit intercept had produced evidence of an $800,000 wire transfer from Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to Primakov, who at that time was serving as Russian foreign minister. The money was reportedly given to Primakov in return for Russian assistance in Iraq’s efforts to acquire strategic weapons technology. One U.S. intelligence official was quoted as saying that evidence of the payment was “rock solid” (Reuters, March 28; Washington Post, AP, March 29)

Primakov does have ties to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein which go back to the 1960s. He also tried to avert Western attacks on Iraq both before the 1991 Gulf War and during the more recent conflicts between Iraq and the UN over Baghdad’s defiance of UN weapons inspectors. Primakov’s defense of the Iraqi regime has been part of a broader strategy aimed at reasserting Russian influence in the Persian Gulf by exploiting Moscow’s–and Primakov’s own–long-standing ties to Baghdad. There have also been reports that Russian defense-related technologies–including ballistic missile guidance devices–have found their way to Iraq. Russian officials have denied those reports.

Clinton administration officials nevertheless downplayed the “New Yorker” article in public remarks made yesterday. Some experts, meanwhile, expressed skepticism about the allegations. One said it was hard to believe that Primakov would accept such a small amount of money and do it in such a way as to be so easily detected (Washington Post, March 29). The current Russian prime minister has long-standing ties to the Soviet intelligence establishment and previously headed Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service.

According to the “New Yorker,” a spokesman at Russia’s U.S. embassy in Washington “vehemently” denied all the charges of corruption against Primakov. A spokeswoman for Primakov said yesterday in Moscow that she could not comment on the “New Yorker” article because she had not seen it.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, however, denounced the “New Yorker” article yesterday and–predictably–linked its appearance to events in the Balkans. Addressing the issue at a news conference, Ivanov said that those behind the article “believe that all means will do in this dirty game…. They want to divert attention from the bombing [in Yugoslavia]. They think that people will discuss that nonsense and forget about the aggression. No, they will not [forget]” (AP, NTV, March 29).