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Man Who Restored Russia's Dignity - Eulogy for Yevgeny Primakov

After Primakov's 1999 “turnaround over the Atlantic” over the bombing of Yugoslavia he was dismissed as Russia's PM against the opposition of 80% of Russians, but his sacrifice was a pivotal event in putting Russia on the path to restore its independence


This article originally appeared in Izvestia. Translated by Chele at The Vineyard of the Saker


It seemed that Yevgeni Maximovich Primakov would live forever.

He was a wise old man, holding no official post, but always ready to help the country. To give advice to the people invested with real power; to meet informally with foreign partners—not the ones you see on TV, but those who make the decisions; to influence his friends and followers, who held key posts in various powerful agencies.

Primakov was the incarnation of the concept of “soft power,” and virtually its only practitioner who was fighting for Russia’s glory.

Of course, the media is as full of “soft power” soldiers as a tin of sardines. They go on and on about “the Chinese danger,” and how Russia, having quarrelled with the West, is doomed to become a raw materials appendage of China, or how it is for naught that the Kremlin is trying to establish mutually beneficial contacts with Turkey. They carry on about Iran using us as a pawn in its game with Washington, and how Beijing and Delhi will never trade in their friendship with America for the dubious benefits of an alliance with Moscow… Now that Primakov is gone, those thin, whiny voices will be louder and shriller on the air.

Right now, that is insignificant. Because Primakov’s idea of creating a Great Triangle, Moscow-Delhi-Beijing, is becoming a real political construct before our very eyes, no matter how loud the liberal jackals may yap.

Yevgeni Maximovich first proclaimed the idea of the Great Triangle during his visit to Delhi in 1998. Many of us recall the condition Russia was in at that time: politically and economically crushed, having barely survived the August default, and just barely beginning to find our way out of the deep crisis into which Russia had been plunged by the “young reformers” in alliance with the corrupt members of the Yeltsin Family.

And here was the new prime minister of a country which, everybody believed, if it did recover from the misfortunes piled upon it, would not do so any time soon, proposing to his partners in India and China to form a strategic triangle, Moscow-Delhi-Beijing. Even in the Asian capitals, the proposal met with restrained skepticism.

Not to mention the Russian liberals, who—instantly!—all became professional orientalists, and from the heights of their professionalism took it upon themselves to lecture Yevgeni Maximovich, who, they evidently believed, before December 1998 had understood nothing about the fine points of eastern politics (having to no avail been director of the Institute of Oriental Studies for 12 years and director of the Foreign Intelligence Service for five). “How could he not realize that relations between Delhi and Beijing are too tense, for there to be some kind of alliance?” they asked condescendingly.

Just seven years after Primakov’s visit to Delhi, however, China and India were already calling themselves “good neighbors and friends,” and in 2012 Beijing announced that Chinese-Indian relations could become the most important bilateral partnership of the century.

And after Russia’s “isolation” by the Atlantic West, it became apparent that Moscow’s joining the alliance of great Eurasian nations, as it took shape, was the only pathway to preservation of its political and economic sovereignty.

“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote John Donne. In the 21st century’s global world, no single county (excepting, perhaps, North Korea) can exist under a system of autarky. If a nation wants not only to survive, but to preserve its status as a great power, it must adhere to an alliance, either one already in existence or one taking shape.

Beginning in 1991, there were attempts to turn Russian into a junior, dependent partner of the West within the Anglo-Saxon globalized model. The Yeltsin Clan led Russia under that paradigm, and, following the “junior partner” logic, deliberately destroyed the industry and agriculture, science and culture, and education and health care of this great nation. The servile foreign policy of the first half of the 1990s, personified by Andrei Kozyrev, followed exactly that logic.

Yevgeni Maximovich Primakov accomplished, so it would seem, the impossible. As a politician of the system, fully integrated into the state machine, he managed to stop this humiliating slide of Russia toward the status of a country “in receivership,” and to reformat our foreign policy, restoring honor and decency. The high point of the “Primakov Renaissance,” of course, was the famous “turnaround over the Atlantic.”

On March 24, 1999, Primakov, heading a large Russian delegation, was en route to the USA for talks with Vice President Al Gore. With two hours of flight time remaining to the U.S. coast, Primakov took Gore’s phone call, hearing from him that the decision had been taken to bomb Serbia, in order to force Milosevic to pull his troops out of Kosovo. Primakov summoned the aircraft’s captain and ordered him to reverse course. Only after the plane had turned around, did he call Yeltsin. “Do you have enough fuel to get back to Moscow?” asked the first President of Russia. “With a stopover at Shannon [Ireland], yes,” Primakov replied. “See you soon.”

This was a slap in the face to those U.S. circles, who had viewed the Russian leadership as a puppet government. … It was a shock for Washington’s Russian clientele, who felt the ground beginning to give way under their feet.

Primakov’s plane had scarcely landed in Moscow, when the influential newspaper Kommersant, controlled by Boris Berezovsky through an Iranian businessman, published a vicious front-page polemic by Vladislav Borodulin, titled “Russia Lost $15 Billion Thanks to Primakov.”

Borodulin accused Primakov of offending the USA, which had led to cutting off money from millions of Russian pensioners and state-sector workers, and had buried the entire Russian economy. Subsequently the editor-in-chief of Kommersant, Raf Shakirov, apologized to Primakov. The next day, he was fired by Berezovsky’s loyal servant, Leonid Miloslavsky. …

Some people believe that the “turnaround over the Atlantic” cost Primakov the prime minister’s chair. On May 12, Yeltsin fired him, although public opinion polls showed that Yevgeni Maximovich was the most popular prime minister in the post-Soviet history of Russia. Over 80 percent of those surveyed were against the removal of Primakov, but the Yeltsin Clan, of course, was listening to other voices.

The compradors who had seized power and carved up property, saw him as their mortal enemy. Possibly Primakov might have held on to power even after the “turnaround over the Atlantic,” since ultimately Yeltsin liked to annoy “his friend Bill,” as the “sprint to Pristina” showed. But the Primakov-Maslyukov government was unacceptably leftist for the ruling oligarchy.

Who cares, that it was none other than this government, in reviving Russian industry when it would seem to have been killed off, that pulled the country out of the quagmire of the liberal reforms? If Primakov had remained premier, his chances of winning the Presidential election would have increased many times over.

So the oligarchy and the Family declared war on Primakov.

In this war, many who acted on the side of the oligarchy lost their own professional honor. The TV hit man Dorenko, for example, will go down in the history of journalism for his segment on “Primakov’s hip” [about Primakov having surgery in a Swiss clinic]. It is generally believed that that war ended with the Family’s victory. The Fatherland-All Russia Party of the regional elites, which had supported Primakov, was smashed in the 1999 Parliamentary elections by the new interregional movement Medved. On New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1999, Yeltsin appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as his successor.

At that time many people, including the author of these lines, viewed those events as tragic for Russia. The pro-Western oligarchy retained control over property and the main institutions of power, while the only real alternative to them—Primakov and his team—were pushed to the side.

But a few years passed, and the balance of forces within the Russian elite inexorably began to change. Vladimir Putin gradually, without any abrupt moves, freed himself from the Family’s men, who had maintained control by the Anglo-Saxon financial and political organizations. The most influential of the pro-Western politicians, Primakov’s sworn enemy and the eminence grise of the Yeltsin Family, Alexander Voloshin, relinquished the post of Presidential chief of staff.

Meanwhile Yevgeni Maximovich Primakov, assuming the honorary post of chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, seemingly not terribly important within the hierarchy, continued his soft influence on the Kremlin’s policy. It unexpectedly became clear that there was no tension or mistrust between him and the President; on the contrary, the President would listen to Primakov’s advice, deliberately appearing with him on TV.

One can only imagine the “smashing of assumptions” experienced by the late Boris Abramovich Berezovsky, who at one time had counted on the young FSB Director Vladimir Putin, not least because the latter had found various pretexts to decline invitations to visit Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov.

Russia’s foreign policy, meanwhile, was increasingly shaped in accordance with the principles formulated by Primakov earlier. And the policy Moscow pursues today, albeit with various qualifications, in the style of “one step forward, two steps back,” is the Primakov policy. It is a policy directed toward building a powerful Eurasian bloc of nations, independent of the Anglo-Saxon financial and political centers.

And when that bloc finally becomes a geopolitical reality, we shall realize for what we are obliged to this wise and strong man. To the man, who once upon a time pulled Russia back from the brink of an abyss.


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