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Primakov Would Have Run Russia as Putin Has

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who died Friday, was once Vladimir Putin's most credible rival for the Russian presidency. Had he won, Russia probably would have embarked on its anti-Western course even earlier. His story demonstrates the inevitability of that swing after Boris Yeltsin gave up power in the last minutes of 1999.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

Primakov had a distinguished career as a Soviet academic specializing in the Middle East. By the time the Soviet Union collpased, he ran an important foreign policy research institute, was a top functionary at the Academy of Sciences and a top adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev. In the summer of 1991, a coup hatched by the KGB temporarily toppled Gorbachev. When he came back, the last Soviet leader attempted to clean up the omnipresent security services by appointing civilian loyalists to top positions. Primakov was tapped to run the foreign intelligence part of the organization, the first civilian to hold the job.

Less than four months after his appointment, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Almost immediately after taking over at the Kremlin, Yeltsin broke up the KGB. After some hesitation, he kept Primakov on as boss of the newly formed Foreign Intelligence Service, known by the Russian acronym SVR. The academic quickly earned the respect of intelligence professionals by keeping on all the key people and hardly ever pulling rank -- and, not least, by refusing the general's rank that came with the post. 

He lasted four years at the SVR, but he left his mark on the largely unreformed, though somewhat downsized, organization. In 1993, on his watch, SVR published a white paper, "The Prospects of NATO Expansion and Russia's Interests," one of the first documents to reflect Russia's emerging preoccupation with the U.S.'s perceived desire to marginalize it. The intelligence service bombarded Yeltsin with similar classified reports.  The Russian president, however, considered Western leaders as allies through most of his first term.

As the 1996 presidential election drew closer, though, Yeltsin was no longer so sure. Being friendly with the West didn't translate into any particular benefits for Russia. Yeltsin was ready to fire pro-Western Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, and offered Primakov his job. Once in the position, the former intelligence boss made no secret of his sympathies: He set about re-establishing ties with the Soviet Union's longtime allies in the Arab world, such as Syria and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He made no attempt to hide his support for Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, opposing the U.S. every inch of the way on the independence of Kosovo.  "Could one say Primakov was anti-American?" Leonid Mlechin wrote in a biography of Primakov. "It would be more precise to say that the United States' prosperity, luck and assertiveness unconsciously irritated him."

In part under Primakov's influence, Yeltsin, too, began to stress the need for a "multipolar world" -- a phrase Putin now uses when he talks about the need to curb U.S. dominance. 

Yeltsin respected Primakov enough to install him as prime minister after Russia defaulted on its debt in 1998. That didn't work out too well, though:  Primakov clashed with Yeltsin's family, which, together with the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, was trying to run the country as a private fiefdom while Yeltsin had lengthening hospital stays. Primakov's attempts to introduce more government control along familiar Soviet lines irritated Berezovsky, and investigations initiated at Primakov's behest directly threatened the oligarch. In May 1999,  Yeltsin fired  Primakov, but not before the prime minister, who was flying to Washington to meet with International Monetary Fund officials, ordered his plane to turn back after learning the U.S. had started bombing Serbia.

The abrupt firing angered Primakov, and he decided to enter politics. He formed a party with then-Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov for the 1999 parliamentary elections. Berezovsky and the Yeltsin family collaborated to thwart him. For example, the oligarch's TV channel, which had the biggest audience in Russia, aired footage of 70-year-old Primakov undergoing leg surgery -- an image intended to suggest that the former intelligence chief was old and infirm. The general message was that Primakov was a Communist sympathizer who would take Russia back to a Soviet-style planned economy and an isolationist foreign policy.

Ironically, the men portrayed as the modern, dynamic alternative were Putin and Sergei Shoigu, now Putin's defense minister. Primakov's party,  Fatherland -- All Russia, lost to their Unity party. After Primakov gave up the idea of running for president, the parties merged, and Yeltsin resigned, bequeathing Russia to Putin.

This did Berezovsky little good: Soon enough, he was in exile, plotting Putin's overthrow. Yeltsin's wealthy relatives and Abramovich, however, escaped persecution because they bowed to Putin. 

The new president was only 47, and he initially appeared much more progressive and pro-Western: He even talked about the possibility of Russia joining NATO. By his second presidential term, however, Putin was channeling Primakov: vowing to strengthen state control of the economy and setting himself up as a staunch opponent of U.S. expansionism. 

Here's a little test:  Does the following quote belong to Putin or Primakov?

Russia approaches universal human values such as democracy by its own road, taking into account its traditions, history, the multiethnic character of the state, its geographic position. Like many othwer countries, it doesn't accept the groundless, abstract foreign instructions, and it won't have any societal or government models imposed on it.

(It's from Primakov's 2009 book titled "A World Without Russia," but it could have been from any of a dozen Putin policy speeches).

In 1999, when Yeltsin's succession was being decided, Primakov could have prevailed, had he been feistier and more willing to take on Berezovsky's media. By 2015, however, Russia's battle lines, and probably its economy, would have been in the same place as they are now. This outcome is not related to Putin's personality, and not even about his foreign intelligence background and the common origins of his and Primakov's worldview. Someone with that ideology was destined to run Russia after Yeltsin. The country's expectations of friendship with the West remained unrealized, and nostalgia for the Soviet Union's might prevailed.

Primakov died at 85. Putin is only 62. His victory in 1999 ensured that Russia would stay its current course much longer than Primakov could promise.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net