Russia lost its great statesman, veteran diplomat and outstanding academic in the demise of Evgeny Maximovich Primakov, Russia’s former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and one of the most eminent political leaders of the post-Soviet period. Primakov’s death brought down the curtain over an entire epoch in Russian history. Primakov—the journalist, academic, diplomat, political leader, statesman—would be remembered in Russian history mostly as the man who rescued Russia from the abyss of the worst ever financial meltdown in its annals and the man who changed the course of Russian foreign policy from dubious Atlanticism to one that defended Russia’s national interests.
Primakov, trained as an Orientalogist with specialisation on the Middle East from the Moscow State University, had worked as the Pravda correspondent for many years in that region and that is how he had cultivated good personal relations with many Arab leaders. He headed the Arab section of Moscow Radio’s foreign service before taking over the assignment of the Director of Moscow’s prestigious Institute of Oriental Studies in 1977. Subsequently he was chosen as the Director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, the Soviet Union’s most important think-tank to replace Alexander Yakovlev, the brain behind the perestroika and glastnost revolution and the CPSU ideologue during Gorbachev’s reign. Primakov, as a propo-nent of the New Political Thinking, made huge contributions to the USSR foreign policy during those years that helped in relaxation of tensions between the two adversary blocs during the Cold War period. Primakov, who then rose to the position of the CPSU Polit-Bureau’s Corresponding Member, served as the Chairman of the Council of the Union, one of the chambers of the country’s first democratically elected parliament and then as a member of the Presidential Council and Security Council.
Primakov, who had no sympathy for the pro-US ‘democrats’ and ‘neo-liberals’ of the time, opposing the imposition of emergency in August 1991, had tried to persuade the then Acting President, Gennady Yanayev, to desist from the attempt during their meeting in Kremlin. When the so-called coup against Gorbachev failed, it was Primakov who, along with the Russian Federation’s Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi, had air-dashed to the Soviet President’s Black Sea health resort, Faros, to bring Gorbachev back to Moscow. In the aftermath of the failed ‘coup’ Gorbachev, appointing Primakov as the First Deputy Head of the KGB, made him the head of country’s foreign intelligence service. Following Gorbachev’s ouster from power in December 1991, Primakov was perhaps one of the very few members of the old Soviet elite
who was permitted to continue in his post under the new regime headed by Boris Yeltsin. Russian experts give the credit to Primakov for keeping the country’s foreign intelligence agency (SVR) intact in the backdrop of the fact that Yeltsin had launched an all-out effort to dismantle the KGB for its alleged role in the so-called August coup. The agency, under Primakov’s leadership, was famous for the critical reports that it produced about the domestic and foreign policy issues pursued by the Yeltsin regime.
Following the ruling elite’s bankrupt and unpopular external and domestic policies that led to the dust-biting debacle of the ruling party in the December 1995 State Duma elections, Boris Yeltsin was forced to form a new government in which he replaced the thoroughly discredited and notoriously pro-US Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, by the veteran diplomat, Evgeny Primakov, who crafted a new foreign policy to defend Russia’s national interests. Primakov became the author of the now famous concept of a multi-polar world and was the architect of Russia’s pragmatic, multi-vector foreign policy under which priorities and directions of the Russian foreign policy witnessed a dramatic change.
Yeltsin’s Russia was plunged into the worst ever economic and political crisis in its annals following the gravest ever financial meltdown that led to the declaration of Russia as a sovereign bankrupt state for the first time in its centuries-old history. This forced Yeltsin to sack his bankrupt government headed by Kiriyenko. As the sick and largely incapacitated Yeltsin’s attempt to install a government led by discredited and bankrupt neoliberals failed, Primakov, who had no intention of heading the government, emerged as the only acceptable candidate for the PM’s post in the State Duma dominated by the Left. This is how a reluctant Primakov became Russia’s crisis manager and a fire-fighter Prime Minister in the country’s most crucial period with the support of the Left in September 1998. Primakov’s government, which was better known as Primakov-Maslyukov government, in which the latter, a CPRF Central Committee member, became the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the economic block, charted a new economic course that spelt the end of the neoliberal model in the country and rescued the economy from total collapse through import-substitution and state regulation. This is how the Primakov-Maslyukov Government, trans-ferring the economy to a trajectory of economic growth under state regulation for the first time in a decade, saved it from total disaster.
Perhaps the most defining moment in the 11-month-old Primakov Government came on March 24, 1999 when he, on his way to Washington on an official visit, turned his flight over the Atlantic ocean back towards Moscow after learning that the NATO bombardment on Yugoslovia is scheduled to begin when his aircraft landed in the US, and this turn became a real turning-point in the contemporary history of Russia when it showed its real courage and autonomy to defend its national interest.
Primakov’s economic policy to kickstart the domestic economy, foreign policy to defend national interest, his declaration to fight against oligarchs (the thief must sit in the jail) made him enormously popular in the country, that made Yeltsin jittery, his coterie nervous and the West peeved. To cap it, the Left-patriotic forces launched a process in the State Duma to impeach Yeltsin and oust him from the President’s post and put Primakov in his place, which was not opposed by the Left-backed Prime Minister. And this made Yeltsin and his corrupt elite
extremely annoyed and nervous. Finally, Yeltsin unceremoniously sacked Primakov’s government on May 12, 1999 ending the golden period of his 11-month rule in Russia. Primakov henceforth became the rallying point of the Left and patriotic forces in the country, enjoying a popular rating of 81 per cent. Primakov, enjoying the support of the Left-patriotic forces and broad masses, had declared his intention to contest the following year’s presidential election but declined to be in the fray in February 2000, choosing to function as the leader of the Duma faction ‘Fatherland’ that represented the regional elite and patriotic forces.
Though he headed some less important organisations like the Chamber of Commerce in the subsequent period, he remained largely relevant in Russian politics till his death. Primakov was one of the great survivors in Russian politics for over four decades. He survived four CPSU General Secretaries such as Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev and two Presidents—first and last Soviet President Gorbachev, first Russian President Boris Yeltsin and served under President Putin as well. He was considered a liberal reformer under the CPSU rule and played a significant role in developing Gorbachev’s New Political Thinking concept, and as a conservative in Yeltsin’s Russia in which he served as the head of the foreign intelligence agency, Foreign Minister and finally Prime Minister. He was critical of the disastrous ‘free market reforms’ and West-centric foreign policy under Yeltsin’s regime. He was an advocate of state-regulated economy and social state. Never-theless, he survived under Yeltsin’s neoliberal regime. Primakov, being a seasoned diplomat, very well knew the art of the possible and thus conducted himself like a Centrist in every regime choosing the middle path and considering the balance of forces. He was adored in all sections except among the ‘liberals’. He enjoyed tremendous respect in Left-patriotic circles who virtually forced Yeltsin to make Primakov the Prime Minister in the aftermath of the financial meltdown and the ensuing political crisis that gripped the country. Though he always behaved like a Centrist, he was a sympathiser of the Left-of-Centre forces. He was a strong believer in Galbraith’s theory of convergence as admitted by him. He was known for his pragmatism and farsightedness.
Primakov, Russia’s most adored leader in post-Soviet Russia, was a great friend of India. Trained as an Orientalogist, his first love might have been the Middle East, but India was not his second love either. He contributed signifi-cantly to Indian studies in his capacity as the Director of Moscow’s famous Institute of Oriental Studies, which has a strong centre of India- related research, and also in his capacity of being the Director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, the most important Soviet think-tank on foreign policy. He did a lot to improve relations between Delhi and Moscow in his capacity as the head of the Foreign Intelliegence Agency (SVR) in the first half of the 1990s when India had been pushed to the bottom of Russian foreign policy priorities under Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. India’s relations with Russia got strained almost in all spheres during Yeltsin’s period of rule. There were a host of vexed issues like the rupee-ruble exchange rate, serious decline in bilateral trade turnover, cryogenic engine issue, stopping all defence spare supplies to India by Russia, differences on Kashmir, Moscow’s change of stand on South Asia’s nuclear status in favour of Pakistan, treating India at par with Pakistan by Moscow etc. that hit Indo-Russian relations badly. President Yeltsin’s first official visit to India was to take place in the backdrop of these
serious irritants. Interestingly, it was Primakov, not Foreign Minister Kozyrev, who was in charge of the preparatory work for President Yeltsin’s first and only visit to India that took place in January 1993. The visit was successful in that it cleared the path by removing the roadblocks for improving bilateral ties.
When Primakov became Russia’s new Foreign Minister in early 1996 replacing Kozyrev, who had sought to improve ties with Islamabad at the cost of Delhi, India became the first foreign destination in the calendar of the new external policy boss signalling a significant change in Russia’s policy towards the East in general and South Asia in particular. It was Primakov who advanced the concept of a multi-polar world which was not accepted in the beginning but gained currency slowly. India was to play a significant role in Primakov’s multi-polar world concept, which is why both sides started talking about building a multi-polar global order, as against the US-led unipolar world, since 1997. Since that period, striving for a multi-polar world finds an important place in all bilateral documents and joint statements issued by both states. This was the period when the concept of strategic partnership between the two countries was conceived, which subsequently became a reality and flourished into a special and privileged strategic partnership over the years.
Primakov undertook an official visit to India in December 1998 in his capacity as Russia’s Prime Minister. In fact, Delhi and Moscow during Yeltsin’s first official visit to India in early 1993 had agreed to conduct annual summits alter-natively in each other’s capital. However, this could not be translated into reality because of Yeltsin’s failure to undertake any visit to India after 1993. While successive Indian Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral paid visits to Moscow in order to take part in the alternative annual summits held in Moscow, Yeltsin continuously failed to undertake a visit to India to participate in the planned annual summits taking place in Delhi.
When a visit from the Russian head of state to Delhi was overdue for participation in the annual summit, finally it was decided that Prime Minister Primakov would undertake a visit to India with the ambiguous status of head of state. Prime Minister Primakov’s official visit to India that took place in December 1998 became an important milestone in the history of bilateral relations. For the first time bilateral official documents talked about continuity in our mutual relationship, mentioning about the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty signed in 1971 that played a strategic role in shaping our ties in subsequent years to the chagrin of Yeltsin and his elite who were over-enthusiastic to bury everything linked to the ‘Soviet past’.
This visit was taking place in the backdrop of NATO bombardments in Iraq when Primakov floated his famous idea of a strategic triangle consisting of Russia, India, China to play a greater role in Asian as well as global affairs. The idea is far from being translated into a reality. Never-theless, the annual trilateral Foreign Ministers’ meet is an important step in the direction of the strategic triangle. India’s admission into the SCO in the forthcoming Ufa summit would be yet another step in that same direction.
In Primakov’s death, while Russia lost a great statesman and outstanding diplomat, India lost a sincere friend who contributed immensely to strengthen our strategic partnership. His ideas of a multi-polar world and the strategic triangle would guide us for decades to come in this turbulent global order.
Prof Arun Mohanty, Chairperson, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is the Director, Eurasian Foundation.