Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 166

Washington’s public reaction yesterday to acting Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s nomination as Russian prime minister was cautious optimism. “Obviously the United States knows and respects [Primakov],” White House spokesman Mike McCurry said. “If [his candidacy were to be] ratified by the Duma we would expect to have a good and close working relationship with [him].” (Reuter, September 10) State Department officials spoke in similar terms. According to spokesman James Rubin, Primakov is “well known to Secretary [Madeleine] Albright and many of us at the department and… enjoys considerable respect.” Rubin said that Albright regarded Primakov as a “skillful and dedicated and effective advocate of what he understands to be the Russian national interest.” Albright reportedly telephoned Primakov within hours of his nomination by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. According to the State Department, the two had a “very warm and friendly conversation”. (Reuter, AP, September 10)

In fact, however, Primakov’s nomination is probably being viewed as a mixed blessing by some in the United States and other Western governments. On the one hand, the acting foreign minister is a known quantity respected for his professionalism and, some would say, pragmatism. Western leaders will also undoubtedly welcome Primakov’s expected approval as prime minister for the simple fact that it may help to bring an end to Russia’s current political and economic turmoil. Whether Primakov as prime minister will be able–or willing–to continue Russia’s economic reform course is another matter, however, and one that will be watched closely in foreign capitals. The West has made economic aid contingent on continuing market reform in Russia.

But Primakov’s defense of “Russia’s interests as he understands them,” to paraphrase Albright, has also generated considerable tensions between Russia and the United States on a number of key foreign policy issues. These include Yugoslavia, where Moscow has emerged as the foremost defender of Serbian authorities in Belgrade, and Iraq, where Russia has led international opposition to more hard-line U.S. and British policies. Primakov, an Arabist and former head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, has also sought to reassert Moscow’s influence more generally in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. He has constructed close relations with Iran, despite repeated U.S. protests, and has generally sided with the Arab countries and against Israel in negotiations aimed at restarting the Middle East peace process. In addition, he has pursued friendly relations with India and China as one means of “balancing” Russian foreign policy between East and West.

Primakov has also continued to speak out strongly against NATO expansion, a position he reiterated yet again yesterday in remarks to international parliamentarians. (Itar-Tass, September 10) Primakov’s criticism of NATO has continued despite his overseeing a major political agreement signed last May between Russia and the Western Alliance. More generally, Primakov has pursued a policy of international “multipolarity” that has aimed at countering U.S. influence around the globe. Primakov’s diplomacy has in large part been embraced across the political spectrum in Russia. His performance as foreign minister has been contrasted positively with that of his predecessor–Andrei Kozyrev–who was perceived as being overly pro-Western.