In the end, Boris Yeltsin blinked first. After the Communist-dominated parliament twice rejected his first choice for prime minister, the Russian president performed an unfamiliar act: he backed down. Abandoning an effort to recycle loyalist Viktor Chernomyrdin, he substituted Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov as a compromise candidate. The Duma responded quickly to the Kremlin’s white flag. It overwhelmingly confirmed the unsmiling foreign minister, handing him the job of reviving a country in deep economic crisis. The Communists predicted that Primakov would return the collapsed economy to greater state control. But Primakov, who at 68 is one year older than the president he serves, provided little indication of the course he would follow—beyond promising “to continue economic and political reforms in Russia.”
His elevation defused a dangerous confrontation. Alarmists on both sides had invoked the spectre of widespread social strife and even civil war. The deal could also extend the political life of crisis-weakened Yeltsin, who has been under pressure to resign before his term ends in 2000. His likely successors, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and populist former general Alexander Lebed, shied away from the politically risky task of trying to revive the country’s shattered finances. Like them, Primakov is no economist. But unlike them, he has no apparent ambitions to take Yeltsin’s place and no ties to the wealthy tycoons who control much of Russia’s resources. His accession was widely welcomed among a populace struggling to buy food with deeply devalued rubles. “For most Russians, his appointment is a step towards regaining stability,” said Igor Kharichev, the director of a Moscow research centre.
That sentiment was evident some 60 km northwest of Moscow on the road to St. Petersburg. In a hamlet with no name, made up of vacation cottages and weather-beaten wooden huts, people discussed politics while out cultivating one of the country’s mainstays against famine: the small, privately owned plots of land that account for more than half the food produced in Russia. Sergei Petrov, a retired tractor mechanic, wasn’t counting on the government changes to restore an often-delayed pension that in devalued rubles was now worth about $50 a month. He was
more concerned about gloomy official predictions that the grain and potato harvests would be sharply down across Russia this fall. “It’s been wet here this summer and half the potatoes I planted are rotten,” he said. “The rest should see me through the winter. As for Primakov, well, he’s an old hand who must have some idea how to get things done.
He’s been in the government forever.”
Versatility, flexibility and loyalty have allowed Primakov to serve Kremlin rulers ranging from Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev through reformer Mikhail Gorbachev to the erratic Yeltsin. During the past 32 years, he has moved from a position as the Middle East correspondent for the Communist party daily Pravda to running Russia’s spy networks abroad for Yeltsin in 1991. Primakov, who speaks Arabic as well as English, has extensive contacts in the Middle East and is widely recognized as one of Russia’s experts on the region. On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, it was Primakov who flew to Baghdad in a bid to find a face-saving exit from Kuwait for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. That attempt failed, but through his efforts, Moscow has kept its ties and influence with rulers in the area.
His appointment as foreign minister two
years ago signalled a shift from the generally pro-Western line Russia had taken since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Nationalists applauded as Primakov stubbornly resisted NATO’s eastward expansion towards his country’s borders. But he was careful to build what has become a close working relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In face-to-face encounters, says current Pravda editor Viktor Lennik, Primakov always has a quip or an anecdote. “He is known and is well liked throughout the country,” says Lennik. “And he can use the connections he’s built up with thousands of people over the years.”
Now, carried into office on a wave of respect, Primakov must put together a team that will compensate for his lack of economic expertise. His initial moves had a distinct-
ly Red tinge. Tapped for the crucial finance minister’s job was Yuri Maslyukov, a Communist legislator who used to be the head of the Soviet economic planning agency. Primakov also indicated that he favored an expanded state role in key industries. But he said he wanted a government drawn from all major parties in the legislature, which seemed to mean that liberals like Grigori Yavlinksi, an old ally, could be included.
In the meantime, Yeltsin had managed to hold on—to a diminished presidency. The job of stabilizing Russia is now handled by a reinvigorated legislature and the new prime minister. How well that awkward partnership works may determine whether the Yeltsin era formally ends in two years’ time—or much sooner.
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