RUSSIAN Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov has had several interesting things to say during his brief tenure. The problem is figuring out what to take seriously as Russian foreign policy and what he is saying simply for domestic consumption as he tries to help his boss, Boris Yeltsin, get reelected.
For example, in a March 6 interview with Izvestia, now a reformist newspaper, Mr. Primakov postulated that Russia's role in a post-cold-war world is to provide a "counterbalance" to the United States and the West, and that Russia had done too much cooperating with the West in recent years. He also said that he didn't think a strategic alliance with the West was likely; that reconstituting the Soviet Union was not possible; and that expansion of NATO eastward could lead to a new arms race.
There's good and bad in all this. Primakov says Russia "went too far" in aligning with the West and should pursue a "great power" foreign policy. He and his colleagues need to break out of 19th-century "great power" mind- sets. The road to prosperity and modernity for Russia must include cooperation with the West, and the sooner Russian politicians stop deluding themselves about this, the better.
Primakov wants a "civilized partnership" of equals between the West and Russia. So does the West, but a partnership means both sides have to give a little. It also means abiding by agreements, and Russia's recent record leaves a lot to be desired.
When it comes to NATO, the Russians are the victims of their own bogeymen. First of all, no one is seriously talking about stationing NATO nuclear warheads in Poland, and NATO expansion doesn't have to mean that. Russian officials, especially in the military, persist in seeing NATO as primarily aimed against Russia. On the contrary, NATO has offered Russia many forms of cooperation. The Partnership for Peace program, or a formal treaty between NATO and Russia, can give Russia a seat at the European table and help bridge the gap until the time when Russia is ready to be a full NATO (and perhaps European Union) member. It's the Russians who are being standoffish. And at a time when Russia can't even pay state workers' wages, the threat of a new arms race seems a mite hollow.
A lot of irresponsible Russian politicians, including Communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are plumping for restoration of the old Soviet Union. That's just old-fashioned Russian imperialism and Primakov is right to throw cold water on it. He foresees a possible union of some kind between Russia, Belarus, Kazakstan, and Kyrgyzstan. That's fine if the populations there so desire.
But some in Russia use the excuse of ethnic-Russian populations in former Soviet republics to meddle in their internal affairs and provoke trouble that might justify a takeover such as Hitler engineered in the ethnic-German areas of Czechoslovakia in 1938. That would lead to more needless bloodshed.
Russia's other stratagem, employed in Moldova and the Abkhazia region of Georgia, is to insert Russian "peacekeepers" to end ethnic tension engineered by Moscow, then use the troops to pressure the offending government. Russians need to understand the West won't look kindly on efforts to create a latter-day empire. Closer to home, they need to realize that Russia itself cannot afford to fight the local wars that would ensue. The Russian Army, which has hardly covered itself with glory in Chechnya, is in no shape for further adventures. Right now it can't even feed and clothe itself.
Russia does have legitimate interests in many of the former Soviet republics. And free-trade and other common-market agreements among those republics would make economic sense. But they should be allowed to develop naturally, so that people can see the economic logic in closer ties.
In the meantime, Russians must accept that some republics, such as the Baltic states and Ukraine, are gone forever and cannot be bullied back into the Russian fold. Even so, a "civilized partnership" of equals could be of considerable benefit to all involved.