By naming acting Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov as his new choice for prime minister yesterday, President Boris Yeltsin has made one of his biggest concessions to his Communist foes in his seven-year reign. But he also probably saved Russia from ruin.
Backing down on his first choice, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was a pragmatic act for Mr. Yeltsin, who realized that a candidate unacceptable to the Communists would prolong the political vacuum at a time of economic crisis, political analysts here say.
Despite Mr. Primakov's lack of economic expertise, he appears to be a wise compromise. He is loyal, independent of political factions, and could serve as a shield behind which a new Cabinet can tackle Russia's swift economic decline. And forming a government, whatever its policies, in itself will lend some stability. (US view of Primakov, Page 8.)
"It is not a surrender. It's a concession to reality and about preserving the status quo," says Boris Makarenko, an analyst at the Center of Political Technologies in Moscow. "Apparently Yeltsin decided that his regime and administration do not have adequate political and economic resources to dissolve the Duma [lower house of parliament]. This will stop the country short of a major political crisis."
Primakov met with European Union diplomats yesterday. The head of the EU delegation told Reuters that Primakov said he would continue Russia's reforms.
The announcement of Primakov as a compromise candidate drew a rare consensus across the political spectrum, with virtually every major politician commenting favorably. Foreign comment was generally favorable too. White House spokesman Mike McCurry said he expects the United States to have a "good and close" relationship with Primakov.
Since Yeltsin dismissed his Cabinet of economic reformers Aug. 23, Russia has drifted into its worst financial crisis since the end of communism in 1991. The ruble has crumbled, and banks and the government have defaulted on loans. Russian citizens have stockpiled food as prices soared.
The lack of a real government intensified the sense of impending doom. The Communist-dominated Duma twice rejected Mr. Chernomyrdin. It threatened to do so a third time, which would have led to its dissolution at a time of financial mayhem.
The Communists said they would support Chernomyrdin in a confirmation vote set for today. "There are no doubts about this candidate. Because Primakov is a consolidating figure, he is able to implement and defend policies that are in Russia's interests," says Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
What these policies will be depends on the composition of a new Cabinet. Analysts were hesitant to predict whether it would include politicians bent on more state control or reformers who have tried for seven years to follow the West's models of liberalization.
A new deputy prime minister, however, would effectively be in charge of the economy, leaving Primakov as front man to defend whatever painful measures are put into effect, analysts say. Just having a government will create more confidence in the ruble and battered economy and stop some of the panic buying and runs on the banks, observers agree.
Primakov is a widely respected veteran diplomat whose trademarks are prudence and pragmatism. Unlike Chernomyrdin, he is not attached to political clans or economic oligarchs, a rare trait in Russian politicians. Unlike Chernomyrdin, who is a contender for presidential elections in 2000, Primakov is seen as lacking explicit political ambitions.
"It's a very reasonable choice taking into consideration so many conflicting interests in Russia's ruling political and economic elite," says Sergei Kolmakov of the Politica Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank.
PRIMAKOV is one of the few high-ranking figures who survived the transition from Soviet politics, demonstrating an ability to remain above competing interest groups. He stayed in favor with Yeltsin while most other allies of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were fired.
An Oriental and Middle East specialist, Primakov worked as a journalist and academic while deftly rising through the Communist Party ranks. He served as foreign intelligence chief before being named foreign minister in 1996.
As foreign minister, Primakov won esteem for preserving Russia's prominent role in international affairs. He played an important role in defusing a crisis between Iraq and the United Nations over weapons inspections early this year. He has a good rapport with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, despite standing up to the West on major issues.
Other front-runners for the job were Moscow's popular mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and Yuri Maslyukov, a Communist legislator who briefly served in Yeltsin's Cabinet. There were some questions whether Mr. Luzhkov would want to hurt his presidential aspirations by assuming the helm of a crisis-stricken country.
Giving Mr. Maslyukov the prime minister job would have been a complete defeat for Yeltsin.
For Yeltsin, who puts a premium on loyalty, Primakov is a trustworthy man who puts his office first.
"The fact that Mr. Yeltsin did not choose a member of a political clan shows that he first of all wants to ensure continuation of his political regime, at least for the remaining part of his presidency," Mr. Makarenko, the political analyst, says.
"It's a concession most favorable for Yeltsin. If he nominated someone with aspirations, he would have to struggle with a very ambitious politician."