A RUSSIAN PREMIER
September 14, 1998
After weeks of political infighting, President Boris Yeltsin and members of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, have finally agreed on a new prime minister. Yevgeny Primakov, the former KGB spymaster and more recently Russia's foreign minister, has been elected to the position. But can he lead Russia out of its current crisis? Elizabeth Farnsworth and guests discuss.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
Will Russia survive its economic and political crisis.
September 2, 1998:
Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin meet in Moscow.
August 31, 1998:
A look at how Russians view the crisis.
August 31, 1998:
Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin meet in Moscow .
August 31, 1998:
The Dow falls 512 points.
August 27, 1998:
The Dow falls 357 points.
August 26, 1998:
Russia's economic situation drives down markets around the world.
August 24, 1998:
Boris Yeltsin sacks his government.
July 13, 1998
International lenders agree to loan Russia over $22 billion.
May 28, 1998
Russia's government tries to maintain the value of the ruble.
April 24, 1998
After two tries, Sergei Kiriyenko is confirmed as Russia's Prime Minister.
March 23, 1998
President Yeltsin sacks his cabinet.
The Russian Government Information Network.
International Monetary Fund.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After weeks of financial crisis and political chaos, the Russian Duma or lower house of parliament on Friday voted to confirm Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister of the Russian Federation. He had been nominated by President Boris Yeltsin only after his first choice -- Victor Chernomyrdin -- was rejected twice by the Communist-led Duma. The new prime minister must now deal with a collapsing currency, a failing banking system, and an industrial slump. Primakov says he stands for national unity.
YEVGENY PRIMAKOV: (speaking through interpreter) I stand for accord across the political spectrum, the mobilization of all our potential to break out of the political crisis and to preserve Russia as a united and strong state.
Who is Yevgeny Primakov?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Primakov was one of Mikhail Gorbachev's closest aides during the reform period of the 1980's and, before that, a foreign policy advisor to President Leonid Brezhnev. The new prime minister is also a former deputy director of the KGB, the Soviet spy agency, and was a director of its successor, the foreign intelligence service. In 1991, Primakov gained world attention in the run-up to the Gulf War by making a last-ditch attempt to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Five years later, he again played go-between in a dispute with the Iraqis over access for UN weapons inspectors. So far, Primakov has named two Communist-backed figures to key positions in his new government. But he has also promised not to return to Soviet-style economics.
YEVGENY PRIMAKOV: (speaking through interpreter) The state could and should regulate the economic process but this isn't a return to the state-administered system as in Soviet times. Every state has a right to do it. Remember that Roosevelt introduced regulatory measures in the America economy during the Great Depression.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Primakov held his first cabinet meeting this morning.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more now we're joined by Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian Studies at New York University, and author of Rethinking the Soviet Experience, and Robert Legvold, professor of political science at Columbia University and co-author of After the Soviet Union, From Empire to Nations. Professor Legvold, you know the new prime minister. What should Americans know about him beyond the details we just heard?
Prof. Legvold: "This is a very able, a very shrewd and intelligent man."
ROBERT LEGVOLD: Well, many of us in the Russian-Soviet field know him from those days when he headed senior key academic institutes in Moscow. I continued to see him when he was in Gorbachev's entourage and then when he headed their equivalent of the CIA. In all of these incarnations this is a very able, a very shrewd and intelligent man. He was committed to the Soviet system but not unthinkingly. He was a critic of the Soviet - of the Soviet Union - desired reform and supported what I think at the time would have been regarded as an enlightened foreign policy. He's a very pragmatic individual.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stephen Cohen, how did you manage? Is it the pragmatism that allowed him to be supported by both ends of the political spectrum in this time of crisis in Russia?
STEPHEN COHEN: It's very remarkable in Russia. It happened last Friday. How long it's going to last I'm not sure. But what happened is that there came a moment when Primakov threatened no one - at 68 and not in great health. He's not going to trample the presidential ambitions of other people. And at the same time he gave very important assurances to other people. The Communists think he will implement some program akin to theirs. The people in the parliament who want to be sure that there will be further elections, believe that Primakov will allow them to happen or enable them to happen, and equally important I think Yeltsin trusts Primakov to prevent any prosecution on criminal charges of Mr. Yeltsin and his family if and when Mr. Yeltsin leaves power. So he was all things to all people for a brief moment. It won't last long.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Professor Legvold, do you think that the Communists are right that Primakov will implement an economic policy something like their own?
ROBERT LEGVOLD: I think it'll come much closer than they would have gotten from Chernomyrdin. But I believe no one in that position is able to do everything, or even, in large part, what the Communist Party would want these days, that is, very heavy state intervention in order essentially to bail out an industrial establishment that cannot be salvaged in order to save all of those who were suffering in the current environment by using the state and its resources, it simply can't be done. So the Communists are going to be disappointed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think that the people, for example, one of the leading reformers - Boris Nemtsov recently said that this confirmation that Primakov has brought the Communists back to power - you think that's wrong?
ROBERT LEGVOLD: No. I think what Nemtsov was saying is that by appointing people like Maslyukov, and Gerashchenko - the new head of the central bank - that a lot of what had been done - in reform before is going to be undone, that is, it's going to be tampered with. And I think one of the dangers now is as Primakov attempts to be - in Steve's phrase - all things to all people - not so much a retreat to Communism as much as splitting the difference among policies that will lead to a kind of incoherence of policy at a time of deep crisis, economic crisis, that requires clearly articulated and coherent policy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Steve Cohen, what do you think about that splitting of policy, is that the danger?
A profound crisis.
STEPHEN COHEN: I think we might miss something here. Bob pointed to it, but let me underline it. I don't want to misrepresent what I think Bob believes. The country is in profound crisis. It's coming apart at the seams politically, economically, socially, psychologically. The economy has collapsed. Winter is coming. People have no money. They have no food. There's no medicine. I speak now with the provinces, but that enormous deficit is descending on Moscow. The country is in radical circumstances, traumatic circumstances. I believe that's what's happening in Moscow is we watch the struggle of Mr. Primakov to form a government, coalition government, therefore a compromise government. Maybe the last stand of centrist or moderate political figures in Moscow - by that I mean moderates from the different political parties. If you were to say to me are the Communists coming back into influence, I would say to you which Communists - this party is a mess. There are people in this party who are essentially social democrats; there are people in this Communist Party who aren't far from being fascist. So the question in my mind is: Can Primakov put together a centrist, moderate government and use the state, because they are abandoning the former so-called free market - the state doesn't play a role policies - can he do it; can he stabilize the situation, or will the moderates collapse and open the door to ferocious forces? That's the issue in my mind.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Robert Legvold, how would you answer that question?
ROBERT LEGVOLD: Well, I think Steve is right. I mean, the country is in a profound economic crisis and has accelerated enormously since last May. What we've avoided is a political donnybrook that would have made things a lot worse had it gone to a disillusion of parliament and then elections at the same time that the Duma was trying to block them with impeachment. But the underlying problem remains. There has - up to this point - been no effective problem for addressing the economic emergency - and until we see what Primakov is going to do - what kind of a team he's going to put together - we have no idea whether they're going to get any kind of a handle on this. If they don't, then what has been a financial crisis affecting the markets, affecting the value of the ruble and now beginning to generate inflation within the economy, is going to spread until it becomes a broad socioeconomic crisis, and that does open the way for radical, militant leadership that would promise solutions with a heavy and iron hand, that is, autocracy again.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stephen Cohen, do you want to comment on that, and then I also want to hear from you what the U.S. should be doing.
Prof. Cohen: "The so-called free market reforms in Russia have collapsed; they're over."
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I think - I'm not sure whether there's a difference between me and Bob here or not, but I don't see that the government has much choice. It must pay wages. Do Americans understand that millions and millions of Russians have not been paid their wages in months and months and months, or their pensions? They can't get to their bank account, their savings. First of all, the accounts have been frozen, and secondly, they've basically evaporated. So what are these people going to do? The government is going to print money. There's no question about that. That's the significance of the appointments that Primakov has been. They are going to print money on the assumption that better say as a friend of mine said 30 percent inflation than 30 percent excess deaths or a complete crumbling of the situation. These things are going to happen. They're going to go in for protectionism. The state's going to try to regulate the ranks through price control and wage control. As we talk, in many of the 89 territorial administrative districts of Russia local bosses, governors and mayors, are already imposing price and age controls. They're forbidding products produced in their province from going to another province. The so-called free market reforms in Russia have collapsed; they're over; Russia is changing course; and now, so to speak, the ball is in our corner.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And very quickly, Stephen Cohen, what should the U.S. do, very quickly?
STEPHEN COHEN: I think we should abandon our dogmas, be humane, and help Russia save itself by whatever means we can.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Prof. Legvold, what should the U.S. do?
ROBERT LEGVOLD: Well, I think the message that Clinton delivered in Moscow was right. The Russians are part of an international environment now and they're not able to do all - to go in a radical direction, as Steve suggests, to the degree in which I think they're inclined to. They're going to have to exercise restraint.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Thank you both very much.