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Primakov Is the Right Man at the Right Time for Prime Minister

Russia: Charges of anti-Americanism are unfounded and his lack of economic experience is not necessarily a bar.

September 11, 1998|JERRY HOUGH | Jerry Hough is a professor of political science at Duke University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

In the midst of a terrible economic crisis, Russia has designated as prime minister Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, a man without economic or domestic administrative experience. He has a long connection with the KGB and is known in the West as anti-American. Yet his appointment offers the first hope in years for real economic reform and good long-term Russian-American relations.

In the 1960s, Primakov was a journalist in the Middle East who was involved with the KGB, but in its intelligence-gathering rather than its secret police side. He later moved into administrative work in the Academy of Sciences research institutes.

Primakov remained, however, an important covert negotiator in Middle East foreign relations. In 1982, during the Brezhnev period, I spent two months at the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Soviet Union, where he was director. I was working on the subject of American-Middle East relations, but did not meet him until the end. He had spent the entire two months traveling in the Middle East, primarily trying to resolve a major conflict in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Primakov was typical of his generation in his pride in the Soviet Union's status as a superpower, and he is determined that Russia be treated as a major power whose interests are respected. He surely will work for closer integration of Russia with the republics of the former Soviet Union. He will be very sensitive about Western policy toward oil in the Caspian Sea, the area from which he came.

Primakov has been wrongly considered anti-American, largely because he flew to Iraq during the Kuwait crisis in 1990 and tried to broker a deal that would stop the American invasion. However, Mikhail Gorbachev is frank in his memoirs that he himself opposed the American invasion and was sending Primakov as his agent.

The clearest sign of Primakov's pro-Western orientation came in 1985, when Gorbachev selected Eduard A. Shevardnadze to replace Andrei A. Gromyko as foreign minister. Primakov was a friend of Shevardnadze and was named director of the top Soviet foreign policy institute. Shevardnadze did not want to rely on Gromyko's conservative Ministry of Foreign Affairs for information and advice. He trusted and relied on Primakov for this purpose.

The real question about Primakov today is his ability to solve the economic problems. Many people are negative because he has no economic experience. Yet, while virtually everyone praises Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and Robert Rubin as Secretary of Treasury, no one thinks either should be president. The skills required of a president are different from those of a good Treasury secretary. The same is true of a premier in Russia.

Primakov was a Politburo member under Gorbachev and was one of the few such officials to be accepted by Yeltsin. This alone testifies to what is an extraordinary ability to charm people, to work with those hostile to one another and to get them to work together.

This is indispensable. However, Primakov will have to show that he is capable of more than diplomatic reconciliation. He will have to make hard decisions that offend some people, change policy, but still get Yeltsin's support. It will not be easy.

For years Primakov has favored the Japanese economic model. His longtime deputy and close friend specializing on the Third World has been the director of the Center on Japan and now has been named top official in the Academy of Sciences supervising the international-oriented institutes. Primakov's old friends such as Georgy Arbatov, former director of the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada, have been calling for a drastic change in economic policy.

The danger with Primakov is precisely that he and his friends are too pro-Western, too academic and too democratic. The fear is that they will continue to think too much in monetary terms, that they will remain focused on privatization and that they will try to institute the Japanese model immediately rather than the drastic emergency steps that are necessary today.

Russia is in extreme crisis. It needs to look at the West when it was in extreme crisis. In 1941, when war broke out, the United States instituted price controls, rationing of key items and an industrial policy that emphasized investment to produce specific goods, while retaining a capitalist economy. The policy produced distortions, but also enormous growth.

Russia needs that kind of growth, and it needs the American model of World War II. It can gradually move to the Japanese model and work out the distortions that will be introduced the next five years.

Yevgeny Primakov is an honorable man, a nationalist in the good sense of the word. We must be understanding and helpful, even when he does things we do not approve. If he fails, the alternatives are stark. Our security interests must be more important than our ideological ones.

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