Yevgeny Primakov with Vladimir Putin in 2004. Photo: SERGEY ZHUKOV
Many Western obituaries and appreciations of the late Yevgeny Primakov portray him as an alternative to Vladimir Putin and someone who would have led Russia in an entirely different direction than the current Kremlin leader. But two Russian analysts argue that in fact Primakov laid much of the groundwork for Putinism.
Few would dispute the argument that Primakov was both more intelligent and clever than the current occupant of the Kremlin. Indeed, some in the West are glad that he did not become Russia’s leader because he almost certainly would have been able to advance Russia’s interests more effectively than Putin has.
But many miss two other things. On the one hand, Primakov’s own all-too-obvious cleverness may have been the major reason why Boris Yeltsin ultimately passed over Primakov to choose Putin as his successor. And on the other hand, Primakov’s positions, instead of being different than Putin’s, were in fact a more sophisticated version of those Putin has adopted.
Vladimir Milov, head of Russia’s Democratic Choice Party, told Novy Region-2 commentator Kseniya Kirillova that Primakov was responsible for two major shifts in Moscow’s approach to both the world and Russia itself that have come to fruition under Putin.
“Already in 1996, when Primakov headed the foreign ministry, he laid the foundations for the anti-American shift in Russian foreign policy,” Milov says. Among other things, he pushed the Kremlin to provide support for Milosevich in the former Yugoslavia, Saddam Husein in Iraq, and the Iranian nuclear program at Bushehr.
Moreover, the Russian politician and analyst continues, under Primakov’s direction, “foreign ministry documents written in an anti-American tone began to circulate.” He first raised the issue of Russia’s “concern about NATO’s expansion to the east” rather than continuing to ask if and when Russia could join the alliance to meet common threats like Iran.
“Primakov set the tone in all of this,” Milov continues. Had Russia put pressure on Milosevich rather than backed him as Primakov wanted, “it would have been possible to save many lives in the former Yugoslavia.” Equivalent achievements would have been possible in the Middle East and Iran were it not for Primakov’s influence.
Domestically, Primakov’s retrograde positions became obvious when he was named prime minister. “Micromanagement was raised to such a level of absurdity,” Milov says, “that Primakov personally corrected by hand before signing our drafts of decisions on issues about which he could not understand anything.”
Indeed, Milov concludes, the successes of Russia after the default for which some celebrate Primakov are the result of the fact that in those difficult times, his government “did nothing and the economy began to recover on its own.” Had he acted on some of the ideas he and his ministers were pushing, the Russian economy would have been destroyed “for good and all.”
Moscow commentator Kyamran Agayev is even more blunt: he says that Primakov should not be remembered as “an alternative” to Putin who would have led Russia in a more positive direction but rather as “the godfather” of Putinism in all its revanchist horror both at home and abroad.
He points out that it was precisely Primakov who “became the first of the representatives of the special services whom Yeltsin began to ‘install’ in high government posts. The appointment of SVR director Primakov in 1996 as foreign minister marked the end of the Kozyrev era and he gradual rebirth and practical introduction of isolationist conceptions” that Putin has simply extended.
Moreover, Agayev continues, it was Primakov who “began the Chekist marathon in the Russian Federation government, having handed off the baton to Stepashin who then praised Putin” and did what he could to advance their common program not just in foreign affairs but domestically as well.
“Having become premier, on the recommendation of Yavlinsky if anyone remembers, Primakov advanced his views as ‘a state-oriented thinker’ regarding the administration of economics and finance by inviting into the government the former chairman of the USSR’s Gosplan, Yu. Maslyukov and communist ministers” as well.
It was no accident that Primakov withdrew his candidacy in advance of the 2000 presidential elections, despite the fact that he declared that “if he came to power, he would put 90,000 businessmen, that is, the business elite of Russia, into prison.” Younger Chekists explained that this was a “primitive” idea and that there were easier ways to restore state control.
Primakov’s “true role” in the rise of the KGB/FSB will be a subject for historians in the future, Agayev continues. “But there can be no doubt that he put in place the beginning of the twilight of the so-called ‘romantic’ period of Russian democracy” and put off for a long time Russia’s transition to a legal state and a genuine market economy.
And thus “both chronologically and ideologically,” Agayev concludes, “Primakov is the godfather of Putinism in Russia” and will remain as such “in the memory of those who look at the history of Russia with unblinkered eyes.”