Interested observers both inside and outside Russia speculated yesterday that President Boris Yeltsin’s cabinet shake-up is likely to have little impact either on Russia’s foreign and defense policies or on the people in charge of implementing them. That, at least, was the message conveyed by the Kremlin. Its chief spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, told a news conference that "Russia’s foreign policy is based on long-term national interests, and changes in the government cannot influence its course." (Reuter, March 23) Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who was invited to remain in his post pending the government changes, echoed that message. He told reporters that Russia’s "foreign policy will not change… We will defend our interests, without sliding toward confrontation." Primakov also suggested to journalists that he has little reason to believe his ouster as foreign minister is being contemplated. (Russian agencies, March 23)
It would indeed be a surprise if Primakov were dismissed. Appointed in January 1996 to replace Andrei Kozyrev (tarred in Moscow for being excessively "pro-Western"), Primakov’s defiance of the United States and his efforts to reestablish Russian influence around the globe have been greeted with applause by groups across Russia’s political spectrum. The one significant rough spot in Primakov’s tenure as foreign minister came last year, when he was criticized both for failing to stop NATO’s enlargement plans and for missteps in Russian policy toward Belarus. Those episodes fueled rumors that Primakov’s days might be numbered. But the man who is an Arabist by training and who previously headed Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service has rebounded nicely in recent months. Primakov’s successful efforts to avert U.S. military strikes on Iraq were a major diplomatic triumph for Russia. They have made Moscow a player once again in the Gulf, and have energized Russian diplomacy in other areas. Moscow and Washington now find themselves in a face-off over the Kosovo crisis–another contest with the United States that is very popular in Russia.
Russia’s Military Reform and the Cabinet Changes.