Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Primakov Making Few Ripples in Foreign Policy

Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov has brought a new tone to Smolenskaya Ploshchad. The new foreign policy chief has spurned the glittering capitals of Europe, preferring to concentrate on Russia's "near abroad." He travels on Aeroflot, with a handful of advisers, rather than arrive on a private jet with a royal retinue of aides.


But the changes so far are largely on the surface, signaling few deep shifts in Russia's foreign policy.


The 66-year-old Primakov, with his heavy-lidded eyes, long jowls and ponderous delivery, appears the quintessential Soviet bureaucrat, a far cry from his predecessor, the youthful, urbane, westward-leaning Andrei Kozyrev.


Given numerous charges that Kozyrev was kowtowing to the West, Primakov's main mission since his appointment in January has been to keep the West at a public distance.


His recent swing through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has demonstrated the priority he has given to boosting integration within the Commonwealth of Independent States.


But the trip was long on feel-good rhetoric, short on substance.


Five of the first six countries the foreign minister has visited are CIS members. "We consider these countries as our closest and equal partners," Primakov said Wednesday in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan.


Primakov has ventured no farther west than Helsinki, where he met with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in early February.


But Primakov is unlikely to effect drastic changes in Russian foreign policy before the June presidential elections, in which President Boris Yeltsin is fighting off a determined assault from Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.


"It is not appropriate to attempt to formulate and make public a new doctrine before the elections," said Viktor Kremenyuk, a political analyst at the USA/Canada Institute.


A more urgent question is whether Primakov will have control of foreign policy and how much access he will have to Yeltsin, said Daniel Goure, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.


With various ministries attempting to influence foreign policy for their own ends, Primakov will have to fight for the president's ear.


"He will be competing with other power centers," said Goure. Tagged as a hardliner and top spy -- he used to head the Foreign Intelligence Service, one of the successors to the KGB -- Primakov's appointment rang alarm bells in the West.


Six weeks later, the hysteria has subsided. Analysts and diplomats describe him as direct, businesslike, and as having made a "much better impression" than initial press reports suggested.


An Arabist with extensive experience in the Middle East, Primakov has said he will correct the imbalance in Russian foreign policy. According to Goure, this could raise the specter of Russia turning east and provoking a collision of interests with the United States over China and the Middle East.


But so far his distancing from the West has caused little alarm. "What else would you expect him to do?" Goure said.


"Primakov understands the Middle East and is more likely to understand Central Asia," said Shirin Akiner, a specialist on the region at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.


In January, Primakov made war-torn Tajikistan his first port of call. He played a crucial role in the region in 1994, shuttling between the warring factions to bring them to the negotiating table. He has also taken an active role in regulating the conflict between Georgia and separatist Abkhazia.


But he is not neglecting the rest of the world. In Almaty, Primakov said that after visits to the CIS he planned to meet with colleagues from the "far abroad," and may travel to Strasbourg next week for the ceremony marking Russia's entrance into the Council of Europe.


The West has already been beating a trail to his door. Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Italy's Foreign Minister Agnelli and France's Prime Minister Alain Jupp? have all visited in the last week.


They have found little to alarm them.


But analysts are combing Primakov's speeches for minute signs of change.


"He has simply stopped talking of the strategic partnership with the United States even in his meeting with Christopher," Kremenyuk said.


But if there are to be major coups before June, it will likely be within the CIS.


"I expect movement on Ukraine," Kremenyuk said. He gave Primakov a 70 percent chance of creating some form of confederation with Ukraine and Belarus, which could prove a huge boost for the president.