WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration is downplaying the implications for already troubled US-Russian relations should Yevgeny Primakov be ratified as Russian prime minister today.
"Obviously, the United States knows and respects the [acting] Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said yesterday.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, insists that under Mr. Primakov as foreign minister, there have been major areas of cooperation between the United States and Russia, such as implementation of the Dayton peace accords on Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He points to an agreement at last week's Clinton-Yeltsin summit to work for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Yugoslavia's southern Kosovo province. He also cites Russia's support Wednesday for a US-British-sponsored suspension of periodic reviews of sanctions on Iraq in response to its latest defiance of United Nations weapons inspections.
"I don't think we would characterize Russian foreign policy as one that has always been at odds with our own," he says. "There is a lot more cooperation in the whole landscape."
What is most important, he says, is whether Primakov would heed US-led calls for Russia to persevere in enacting Western-style economic reforms as it grapples with its crushing economic woes.
"I think we are stressing in any set of scenarios the importance of the Russian government focusing on the tasks at hand and taking immediate credible steps to arrest the economic crisis," he says.
But other experts are profoundly wary of Primakov.
Peter Reddaway, a Russian expert at George Washington University in Washington, says Primakov may be able to use his connections as a former senior official of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, to work with the Communist-led opposition to restore political calm. But, says Professor Reddaway, he lacks the expertise in economics to address Russia's massive financial woes.
A Primakov government would be viewed with profound distrust on Capitol Hill. Many majority Republicans and minority Democrats are already angry at what they consider Primakov's efforts to bolster dictator Saddam Hussein against the US-led campaign to maintain sanctions against Iraq until it fully discloses its illicit weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.
Earlier this year, Congress moved to legislate sanctions against Russian companies for allegedly selling missile technology to Iran, and lawmakers remain irate over transfers of Russian nuclear reactors to the Islamic republic and sale of antiaircraft missiles to the Greek Cypriot government.
Lawmakers are also deeply suspicious of Primakov's personal friendship with Saddam Hussein, his Marxist past, his long service as a KGB agent, his opposition to NATO expansion, and his desire to keep US power in check.
There are concerns that Primakov dreams of restoring Russia as a major international power, and that he could intensify Russian opposition to US foreign policies. He could also reassert state controls over political and economic life in Russia, rolling back the fragile democratic gains achieved since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
"We know the personality of Primakov, and we know that his ideals are antithetical to the ideals of someone who would put Russia on an internal path toward stability and, externally, put Russia on a responsible path around the world," says a senior GOP staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"This is a man who propped up Saddam Hussein. This is a man who has ties to terrorist groups in the Middle East. This is a man who preaches confrontation with the US."