Aleksey Malashenko: “Primakov would not have been allowed to become president”

The negotiator, Soviet brand for the Middle East and experienced adviser to the authorities

Aleksey Malashenko: “Primakov would not have been allowed to become president” Photo: Paul White / AP (lenta.ru)

A monument to Yevgeny Primakov has been opened near the ministry of foreign affairs in Moscow. The Soviet and Russian statesman and diplomat would have turned 90 this year. Aleksey Malashenko, his former colleague-Orientalist, research manager at the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute told about Primakov's role in diplomacy and politics in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.

“He was not a supporter of Gaidar’s party, but he was not a post-Communist either”

Mr Malashenko, I would like to start with the appointment of Primakov as the prime minister of Russia in September 1998. Many believe that by leading the Cabinet of Ministers during the economic crisis, he saved the country from economic disaster and civil war. To what extent is this true?

I like Yevgeny Maksimovich very much but I would not exaggerate here — it is a little generous to say that in that situation there was the only person who could save the country. Here I will be objective — Primakov did a lot to resolve the difficult situation — someone welcomed it, someone was annoyed by his work, but the fact that tensions in Russia did not reach the maximum limits that year (and it could) is a merit of Yevgeny Primakov but not only his. At that time, leading the government, he did everything he could and did successfully. And I should thank him for that.

Why did Primakov decide to head the government?

It's a mystery. There are many explanations for this — smart, correct, political, but for him this decision was unexpected. Primakov was persuaded for a long time, he hesitated for a long time and even then was surprised at his own consent, although he was a man with a strong character.

But you would agree — at that tense moment, the country needed just the prime minister who could agree with all political forces (Communists, Democrats, regional leaders) about calm in the name of civil peace.

Primakov was a brilliant negotiator — it was his gift, and as a negotiator, he did a lot at the time. Primakov is accused of conservatism, but this is not the trouble and not the fault of Primakov, but this is his given, and he could only be such — but Primakov was not a mediocre conservative: for the leadership of a certain agency, he took from the past the good that was there, and this annoyed many. But if Primakov had stayed in this position longer, he might have changed and become more open — yes, the economy had to be saved, but it was necessary to move forward, and this could be done only by changing something in the country's economy.

That is, Primakov could definitely be the prime minister of development?

Primakov was generally an open person for everyone and always listened to everyone: yes, it was his opinion that became decisive, but he was always ready to listen to everyone.

Yevgeny Primakov and Bill Clinton. Photo: Greg Gibson / AP (lenta.ru)
Primakov was a brilliant negotiator — it was his gift, and as a negotiator he did a lot at the time. Primakov is accused of conservatism, but this is not the trouble and not the fault of Primakov, but this is his given, and he could only be such

You’ve mentioned Primakov's conservatism. Can we say that Primakov adhered to socialist ideas but improved ones?

No, his conservatism was a synthesis of different ideas — it can be only this way in Russia, and we can definitely say that Primakov was disposed towards reforms. But how to carry out reforms — this is another question, what kind of reforms should be — it is also a question, and here I would definitely say that Primakov was not a supporter of Gaidar’s party, but he was not a post-Communist either if you like. We saw that Primakov nominated both liberal and conservative people to work in the government — Primakov sought, first of all, compromises in his work.

“In the Middle East, he provided the authority of the USSR”

Yevgeny Primakov was an Orientalist by education. What country of the East did impress him?

I think that Egypt, where Primakov worked as a correspondent of Pravda newspaper — Primakov perfectly knew Arabic and its Egyptian dialect. In general, the entire Middle East was close to Yevgeny Maksimovich. Primakov could predict the situation in this region, could warn our country against something, and later could play the role of a mediator between Arab countries — he did all this professionally, with intelligence and courage. I think that if it was he who had dealt with the Middle East in the situation that has arisen there now, everything would have been much more productive than it is now. Primakov had many personal acquaintances at the political level of the region and he was known and respected there — Primakov in the Middle East — it was a “firm”! I hadn’t known another such figure there.

It turns out that in the 1970s only Primakov was the key figure of Soviet diplomacy in the Middle East region?

I hadn’t known another such person there.” To be a politician, research scientist, to have journalistic experience — only Primakov had such a combination among diplomats in that region. By the way, many were jealous and did not like him because of this — because of the same jealousy.

What did Primakov manage to do in this direction? What were his successes?

In the Middle East, he provided the authority of the USSR, not artificial, but natural — Primakov proceeded from the fact that it worked not for the power but for the country. It was not easy to maintain the authority of the USSR in the Middle East, but Primakov did it. When an Arabist sits in front of a particular statesman, who speaks several languages perfectly, knows the history of the Middle East, all the analytics, already one of all this raised the level of Soviet foreign policy. Let’s not forget that Primakov is the author of many books about diplomacy and he wrote them himself, unlike many politicians for whom books were written by other people, so to speak. Primakov wrote the books himself because only he himself could know everything about a particular issue through and through. Of course, Primakov's authority among political leaders was also rising — he was not considered as just a scientist who just came and analyzed the situation: his ability to speak, write and do something else is a rare quality.

1981. Yevgeny Primakov, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Academician of the USSR Academy of Sciences, member of the Presidium of the Soviet Committee of Friendship and Solidarity with the Arab People of Palestine, speaking at the conference in support of “Arab peoples against Israeli aggression”. Photo: M. Barbashov / RIA Novosti (lenta.ru)
It was not easy to maintain the authority of the USSR in the Middle East, but Primakov did it. When an Arabist sits in front of a particular statesman, who speaks several languages perfectly, knows the history of the Middle East, all the analytics, already one of all this raised the level of Soviet foreign policy

But we know that Egypt, which Primakov impressed, under President Sadat in the 1970s moved away from the USSR towards cooperation with the US to normalize the situation with Israel, which occupied Egyptian territory and inflicted a serious defeat on the country's army.

And you want only one Primakov to fight against everything — including against Soviet stupidity? After all, the policy, for example, in Afghanistan could make Primakov alone? It was doubly difficult for Yevgeny Maksimovich to negotiate if he saw what decisions Moscow could make on certain issues. If we talk about Sadat, then everything was going towards his contacts with the United States and there is no ounce of Primakov's fault. At that time, in 1972, I was visiting Egypt, and what were we being told there? That our military advisers in Egypt — people of a defensive position, and the weapon sent to Egypt from the USSR were also of a defensive character, and thus we, according to Egyptians, prevented them to be in a war against Israel. And the Americans offered Egypt a qualitatively different plan for resolving the conflict, and even if there had been ten Primakovs, in the end, everything would have been decided in the Kremlin. But in the Kremlin at times there were just stupid people sitting. We never take into account the factor of stupidity in politics, and it exists — we think that the president or the prime minister is always a smart person, but practice shows that this is not the case.

Few people know that in the 1970s Primakov was an unofficial envoy of the USSR for contacts with the highest leaders of Israel, with whom diplomatic relations were broken off by our country in 1967. Why was there no progress in restoring relations?

Here it is difficult to say, and even the memoirs on this subject should be treated very critically — yes, the situation in the Middle East at that time was more than difficult, and we continued to “educate” the Arab armies. But Egypt lost in 1973 in the Yom Kippur War to Israel, and how to conduct policy here? Politics is not about propaganda, nobody’s going to scream about Zionism. It is difficult to say what Primakov said at such talks with Israeli politicians, but the fact that these contacts were contacts of sane people and no one there fooled anyone's head is definite. But when this issue went up to Moscow, there was already a different situation — not always, as I said, sober (members of the Politburo of the Central Committee eventually rejected the proposal of the heads of the KGB and foreign ministry Andropov and Gromyko to allow for permanent contacts to work Israeli diplomats in the Embassy of the Netherlands in the USSR — editor’s note).

“It would be extremely hard for him to be president”

In perestroika and democratic times, Primakov was Gorbachev's foreign policy adviser and then worked successfully under Yeltsin, although his premiership is a separate story. To what extent was he their associate, their comrade?

Primakov was a “nobody's” comrade — he was on his own, and even under the strong Soviet government, he was also by himself, and not a person of Brezhnev, Yeltsin or Putin. Even when expressing an official position.

Let's go back to 1999. How to assess the decision of Primakov to deploy the aircraft over the Atlantic after NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia? The country needed world loans.

A big role there was played by emotions of Evgeny Maksimovich — I think as the third-party observer, but sudden acts — it was in character of Primakov. But if such a turn is made by a person who has earned respect throughout the world, then we need to think about why he did it. One shouldn’t shout that it is brilliant or terrible, but to think why it happened. I think that the circumstances then were very serious to make this turn.

Boris Yeltsin and Yevgeny Primakov. Photo: TASS / AP (lenta.ru)
Primakov was a “nobody's” comrade — he was on his own, and even under the strong Soviet government, he was also by himself, and not a person of Brezhnev, Yeltsin or Putin. Even when expressing an official position

At the beginning of 1999, Primakov had chances to become the president during the elections of 2000. And in December, Yevgeny Maksimovich announced his candidacy. Why did he abandon his decision after Yeltsin's resignation?

I think that Primakov understood that he had no chances — he would have been just “destroyed” during the election campaign, besides his age spoke for itself (Primakov was 70 years old — editor’s note). To be honest, I did not see him as president: this does not mean that he was stupid for this post or did not fit at all, Primakov just had a different character, not presidential. And if he had become the president, it would have been insanely difficult for him in this post. You see, Primakov was often a consultant, adviser, conductor of some line of the head of the country, corrector of the same line, but when you are already responsible for everything that is happening in the country, what’s more — when you are over 70, it is not so simple.

That is, Primakov looked at the situation very sensibly, realistically and therefore made a quick decision?

Primakov very sensibly looked at everything. And the fact that he quickly made the decision to give up the fight for the top post says that he did well. You see, there are people who can be respected because they are ready to become president, but there are also those who are respected and for the fact that they admit that they are not ready for this. Again, Primakov would not have been allowed to become president: you know what a “lunatic asylum” it already was in the political sphere.

Primakov left the political arena in 2001 — he left the post of the head of the Duma faction “Fatherland — All Russia” and headed the Chamber of Trade and Commerce. Why did he do it?

By that time, Yevgeny Maksimovich had been tired of politics, and sitting in the Chamber of Trade and Commerce, he helped those who applied there to him for help — if, of course, he understood that this help was really necessary, and if he believed that someone did not need help — he refused. But he always explained to the person why he refused — it was Primakov’s way of communicating if you like.

In four and a half years, the country is electing a new president. Political analysts say that there is no request for a “strong hand” in the country, but there is a request for a fair president. Could Yevgeny Primakov have been such president if he had been alive?

As the president of the country, I do not know whether he would be so or not, but for the modern Middle East, Primakov's participation in resolving all these conflicts would have been very interesting.

The speech by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov at the 51st session of the UN General Assembly in New York. Photo: Marty Lederhandler / AP (lenta.ru)
Primakov often was a consultant, adviser, conductor of some line of the head of the country, corrector of the same line, but when you are already responsible for everything that is happening in the country, what’s more — when you are over 70, it is not so simple

But can we admit that Primakov would have been inclined to be a progressive leader of the country?

At his time, as the head of the government, Primakov was, of course, progressive because he was an expert and professional, and if you are a professional in one area, you will never make nonsense in other areas either.

Yes, Primakov did not make mistakes in the economic management of the country and in diplomacy — it is recognized by many.

Today we lack such professionals as Primakov, professionals who know how to defend their point of view.

By Sergey Kochnev