Russian Bear to Growl A Bit Under Primakov

JOWLY, sly, and near the end of a career in Middle Eastern politics and espionage, Yevgeny Primakov brings a sharp change of style to the post of Russian foreign minister as he takes over from the boyishly frank Andrei Kozyrev.

But he is by no means the hard-line throwback to Soviet times that some diplomats and politicians in the West fear, according to his associates and analysts here. ''His Western colleagues will be pleasantly surprised when they find their preconceptions do not match reality,'' says Alexander Dzasokhov, a member of the Duma (the lower house of parliament) and a foreign affairs expert who has worked with Mr. Primakov in several capacities for many years.

Primakov, who as a youth changed his name from Kirschenblat to disguise his Jewish origins, ''above all, is a pragmatist with a great talent for maneuvering,'' adds a colleague who has known the new foreign minister since their student days, but asked not to be identified.

Those qualities are evidenced by the way Primakov has survived and prospered under President Boris Yeltsin despite being a close ally of Mr. Yeltsin's nemesis, Mikhail Gorbachev. Primakov has been Russia's top spymaster since Mr. Gorbachev split up the KGB and put his friend in charge of foreign intelligence in 1991. But colleagues say this was not Primakov's first experience in the shadowy world of espionage.

As a special Middle East correspondent for Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party daily, in the 1960s, he is thought to have reported to the KGB from Cairo and from Iraq, where he developed contacts with both the government in Baghdad and the rebel Kurdish leader Mahmoud Barzani.

Primakov later headed think tanks close to the Soviet government, advising it on Middle East policy, and rose to be a nonvoting member of the Politburo before the Soviet Union collapsed.

This background, say political observers here, naturally disposes Primakov to pay more attention to Russia's Asian neighbors than his predecessor did and to be less focused on relations with the West. ''The strategic direction of being open to cooperation with the West will be preserved, but you will see a greater degree of autonomy and self-reliance,'' Mr. Dzasokhov predicts.

INTRODUCING Primakov to Foreign Ministry staff on Wednesday, President Yeltsin stressed that ''the change of foreign minister does not mean a change in the basic principles of Russia's foreign policy. The future of the country ... and the effectiveness of our reforms will largely depend on ... relations between Russia and the international community.''

But officials familiar with reports prepared by the Foreign Intelligence Service under Primakov say that the new minister was often at odds with outgoing Foreign Minister Kozyrev on key issues. Primakov opposed Russia joining NATO's ''Partnership for Peace'' program that is expanding military relationships eastward.

He also has shown a much greater wariness about economic integration with the West. ''Russia should not enter the world economy as a raw-materials appendage, something that it is being prompted to do,'' he said in a recent, rare interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Moscow daily.

A speaker of Arabic and English, Primakov is known as a raconteur and ready teller of jokes who finds it easy to strike up good personal relations. Politically he is seen as more in tune with the current Russian mood than is Kozyrev, as the Kremlin leadership loses some of its former enthusiasm for the West and finds fault with Kozyrev's perceived pliancy toward Western interests.

That makes Primakov an ideal candidate for Yeltsin, as the president readies himself for a reelection campaign and modifies his image before an increasingly nationalist electorate. ''If the West is unhappy with the appointment, that can only be good for Yeltsin,'' says the new foreign minister's old colleague.

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