The Spy Who Got In

By Powell, Bill; Watson, Russell | Newsweek, September 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Spy Who Got In


Powell, Bill, Watson, Russell, Newsweek


Yevgeny Primakov is an old foe of the West, and he doesn't know much about global economics. But he's not a bad choice for prime minister.

He was born yona Finkelstein, a Jewish identity he lost as a child. When he worked for the Soviet KGB, he counted himself a friend of Saddam Hussein's. He resents American "hegemony" and thinks Russia still deserves to be treated asa great power. He opposes NATO's expansion and the belt-tightening demands of the IMF. He bristles when people say he knows nothing about managing an economy, boasting of hisacademic credentials in economics. Unfortunately, he was schooled in Soviet-style eco-nomics, and his doctoral dissertation was entitled "The Social and Economic Development of Egypt." Yevgeny Primakov, as he has been known for most of his life, is no friend of the West, and he may not be able to solve his country's current problems. Yet, at a time when Russia's government is collapsing as quickly as its economy, the new prime minister could be the Kremlin's least bad option.

"We'd like a person with political support and economic policies, but that's hard to find," says a senior Clinton administration official. At least Primakov is a known quantity, both in Russia and overseas--"a pragmatic and hardheaded pursuer of what he perceives to be Russian national interests," as the U.S. official puts it. Primakov alsois a wily political survivor who adroitly segued from the Soviet Politburo to the upper tier of Boris Yeltsin's government, serving first as a spymaster and then as a hard-line foreign minister. As prime minister,he is likely to move Russia leftward, with more government management of the economy. But Primakov gives Washington what it wants most from Moscow now: no surprises. Bill Clinton, after all, is absorbed with his own problems. Meanwhile, hisforeign-policy apparatus is swamped with other crises: terrorist threats, plummeting global markets, another potential confrontation with Iraq, new Mideast peace negotiations, continuing strife in Kosovo and a menacing missile test by NorthKorea. The pace of events has left manyof Clinton's people feeling a bit "shellshocked," one of them admits.

Primakov spells relief for Yeltsin, too. Twice the Russian president tried to ram Viktor Chernomyrdin, his choice for prime minister, down the throat of a parliament dominated by the Communist Party and his other opponents. Twice the Duma rejected Chernomyrdin. Yeltsin was determined to try again, but if Chernomyrdin lost a third time, the result would have been a dissolved parliament and new elections that no one wanted. There was also the potential for chaos--"civil war," in the somewhat overheated words of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

To the relief of an increasingly desperate nation, a handful of Yeltsin's advisers--including spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky and security adviser Andrei Kokoshin--talked some sense into him. They convinced him that the Duma would not back down on Chernomyrdin, the man many delegates held responsible for Russia's economic collapse. Who else was there? At a meeting in the Kremlin, Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the most liberal bloc in Parliament, put forth Primakov's name. No one objected, and Yeltsin was said to be pleased. Politically, Primakov was perfect, respected by the Communists as well as by Yavlinsky. And Primakov has no presidential ambitions. At 68, he is a year older than Yeltsin, whose term expires in 2000. Primakov belongs to no party, and even if he does well in office, he cannot threaten presidential aspirants like former general Aleksandr Lebed and Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

When Yavlinsky went public with his proposal, Primakov demurred. "I cannot consent to this," he said. "He meant it, too," says a source at the foreign ministry. But the door was still open. By last Thursday, Yeltsin was convinced that he was out of options and that another showdown with the Duma would be dangerous. Primakov's name was submitted to the Duma, which overwhelmingly endorsed him a day later. …

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