Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 74

Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has been suffering from severe back problems. He missed a meeting yesterday with World Bank President James Wolfensohn–leaving First Deputy Prime Minister to attend in his place–but later did meet with Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman. Primakov’s pain was so intense, however, that, according to Zeman, he was unable to walk to a conference room for the talks; the meeting was instead held in his personal office. Indeed, Russian television news programs showed a brief clip of Primakov walking extremely slowly and stiffly. Under pressure from reporters, Yuri Zubakov, the government’s chief of staff, admitted that Primakov might have to cancel tomorrow’s scheduled trip to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia. Last week, Primakov canceled an official visit to Ukraine (Russian agencies, NTV, April 15; Moscow Times, April 16).

While there is little doubt that Primakov actually does have back problems, the Russian media has been quick to point out that they come at a time which hasn’t been good for him politically (NTV, April 15). Indeed, a certain role reversal would appear to be taking place–the formerly physically ill and politically weak President Boris Yeltsin appears to be strengthening in both spheres, while Primakov appears to be taking on Yeltsin’s weakened conditions. Yeltsin, as Kremlin First Deputy Chief of Staff Oleg Sysuev said yesterday, “had fallen seriously ill, but he now acts with full capabilities” (Russian agencies, April 15).

As noted in yesterday’s Monitor, with Yeltsin’s appointment of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as his special representative on the Yugoslav crisis, the Kremlin is chipping away at Primakov’s legitimacy in his supposed sphere of competence–foreign policy. Yeltsin appeared to be emphasizing the contrast between the two yesterday, when, before the cameras, he praised Chernomyrdin’s “strength” and authority abroad (NTV, April 15). Yeltsin’s eloquent praise for Chernomyrdin seemed a bit strange, given that the head of state has discarded Chernomyrdin twice (once for Sergei Kirienko, the second time for Primakov). All is fair in war, one might say.

One report today theorized that Primakov’s survival will depend on his being able to claim progress in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on restructuring Russia’s debts and future credits. Yeltsin, in a letter he recently sent to the cabinet, sharply criticized the government’s budget policy (Kommersant, April 16). Yesterday, Oleg Sysuev, first deputy Kremlin chief of staff, said that Yeltsin was disappointed with Primakov’s lack of success in putting the economy on the road to recovery.

The Kremlin’s criticism of Primakov has been steadily increasing. Yeltsin said on April 9 that the prime minister was needed “for now,” but that his future was conditional. Primakov, during today’s cabinet meeting, appeared to be making an effort to show that he is loyal to the head of state and heeding his words. He told his ministers that the government needs to work toward the “strategic” goal Yeltsin mentioned in his recent State of the Nation speech–the creation of a “competitive and socially oriented economy” (Russian agencies, April 16).