Evgueni Maximovitch PRIMAKOV

Note kindly translated by Anne-Marie de Grazia

Evgueni Maksimovitch Primakov died on June 26th in Moscow, age 85. With him, one of the great actors in international as well as in Russian domestic politics is disappearing. If there is one person to whom Russia owes not to have decomposed itself at the moment of the financial crisis of August 1998, it is to Evgueni Primakov. His role was far more important than had been perceived at the time. He was, together with Vladimir Putin and a handful of others, the true « father » of the modern Russia we know today.

The beginnings of Evgueni Primakov’s career

Evgueni Primakov spent his youth in Georgia. He studied at the Institute of the Orient in Moscow, from which he graduated with a diploma in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. After working at the institute, he became a great journalist, covering the Middle East for Soviet Radio from 1956 to 1970. His knowledge of the terrain and of languages, his remarkable political intelligence made him one of the main interlocutors of Arab leaders as well as of Western journalists. He returned to the USSR in 1970 and became deputy-director of IMEMO, the very prestigious institute of economy and international relations. Under his leadership, generations of Soviet researchers as well as journalists were trained, whom I got to know in the 1980s. There existed among many of them a “Primakov brand » which translated into a capacity of clearly distinguishing between objective observation and ideological interpretation. He returned to his old alma mater, the Institute of the Orient, which he directed from 1977 to 1985, before taking on the directorship of IMEMO from 1985 to 1989.

This period in the life of Evgueni Primakov was certainly the one in which his influence on the Perestroïka generation was strongest. But his influence wasn’t limited to Soviet people. Many foreign leaders have studied under him, be it in Palestine, in Syria and Lebanon, as well as in Africa. Primakov, whom I met many times between 1998 and 2010, remained discreet about his former students but one could feel that he took no small pride to have been able to contribute to their training.


Primakov and the theory of the multipolar world

He entered politics in 1989, and became the diplomatic adviser of Mikhaïl Gorbatchev for the Middle East at the time of the first Iraqi war, in 1991. He then became the deputy-director of the KGB before taking over the direction of « exterior services » at the time of the splitting-up of the KGB missions in 1992/1993. He was to hold the responsibility of the “exterior service” or SVR until 1996, before becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs. His nomination by Boris Eltsin signalled the beginning of the end of American influence over Russia. Not that Primakov was obsessively « anti-American. » He was far too intelligent to fall into such a trap. But he had a very precise knowledge of the often contradictory ends of American diplomacy and a very clear conscience of the dangers to which this diplomacy, with all its relays, could expose the world’s balance of powers. He was one of the first in Russia to articulate the concept of “multipolarity” and to give it a precise content. He opposed the politics of the United States on the question of former Yugoslavia, perceiving with great lucidity that there was one kind of « human-rightist » discourse which would end up destroying the foundations of international law. He made a clear distinction between ethical questions (on which his positions were very clear) and political ones. This distinction, which has largely vanished in France as well as in Europe, through the instrumentalization of ethics to political ends, is one of the keys for those intent on understanding the diplomatic course of Russia since this period. Kosovo is a case in point. Far from leading to a situation of “ethnic peace,” which was the stated aim, the intervention of NATO only resulted in displacing the targets of the movements of ethnic cleansing and of massacres of civilian populations. Kosovo has remained, under the administration of the UN, a lawless zone [1]. In many instances, one can consider this case to be a “counter-model” as far as military support of a humanitarian cause in concerned[2].


The Russian crisis and Evgueni Primakov’s hour of glory

But Evgueni Primakov hour of glory struck at the time of the financial crisis which hit Russia in the summer of 1998. Confronted with the amplitude of the crisis, economic as well as political, a national unity majority formed at the Duma and put pressure on Boris Eltsin to call Evgueni Primakov to power as Prime Minister. The immediate effects of the krach of August 1998 had appeared to be devastating[3]. Russia had been forced to default on its debt and its banking system was in shreds. Yet, far from heralding the end of Russia, this crisis became the signal of the country’s revival. Progressively leaving behind the neo-liberal theses, which had dominated the nineties, Russia rebuilt itself around a national, industrialist project. Economic growth, which made itself felt as early as the first months of 1999, progressively allowed the country to erase the depression of the preceding decade. Russia, who had been humiliated and impoverished between 1991 and 1998, emerged again as a power which had to be taken into account. One can date back to September 1998 and to the first measures taken by the Primakov government the process which was to lead to the « return of Russia » which was observed in the years 2000 and since.

In this double process, one must acknowledge the eminent role played by the actions of this Prime Minister who had been put in charge after the Crash of August 17th, 1998, this Evgueni Primakov who, even if he remained in power for a few months only, exerted a decisive influence on the reconstruction of Russia. A reconstruction which was first of all political. In reaffirming the role of the State against the encroachments of the oligarchs, but also those of the IMF, Primakov created the context which permitted the economic jolt and thanks to it, social renewal. The economic jolt manifested itself very rapidly, in fact from the end of autumn 1998[4]. Contrarily to statements complacently circulated by repatriated American experts, this jolt was not the result of the exportations of commodities [5]. Primakov’s role was essential for the reconstruction of a solid system of taxation, but also for having launched the beginning of the war against the oligarchs, which would in fact be carried on by Vladimir Putin.

But his action was not limited to the sole economy, even if it was at the time absolutely fundamental. Primakov took the initiative in opposing the NATO intervention in Kosovo by sending in Russian paratroopers which had been deployed within the framework of the NATO troops in Bosnia, to occupy the Serbian populated city of Priština in 1999. Russo-American relations experienced then their first nadir. It was thought to be conjunctural. In fact, it reflected a profound and durable opposition [6].

A man of lasting influence

Side-lined by Boris Eltsin in 1999, Evgueni Primakov attempted a come-back into Russian politics, but ended up rallying Vladimir Putin in the spring of 2000. He became a highly considered expert on Middle East questions, but also on economics. I met him several times then and we had ferreting discussions. His influence always remained important, be it on Russian policies in Iraq or on the question of a multipolar world[7]. Moreover, in economy, he obtain the departure of some ministers who were too tightly bound up with the liberal influence of nineties. Primakov’s arrival to power in 1998, followed by Putin’s in 2000, launched the debate in the United States about the « loss of Russia » [8]. It’s easy to say that the United Sates never having « possessed » Russia, they could not have lost it. It would be forgetting a bit fast the essential role of the “politics of Russia » in the American hegemonic project of the nineties. Russia was to be weakened and integrated. The failure was obvious on both accounts [9]. We must here measure the symbolic defeat which the financial crisis represented in 1997-1999 and the incapacity of the United States and of their hegemonic organizations to take back the upper-hand.

Evgueni Primakov became less visible in the press and on television. He was known to be ill. But his word carried weight; he was the man who symbolized that very particular moment when Russia had put itself together again. I will personally keep the memory of his presence at a soccer game in the fall of 1998, when the whole stadium rose for him and gave him a spectacular, magnificent ovation. He represented this solidity of the people and of institutions which had allowed Russia to get through the crisis and come out on top again.


Rest in peace, Evgueni Maksimovitch. But your wisdom and your knowledge will be missed by your close ones, your friends and the whole Russian people.

[1] Besides the reports cited, we send the reader to the testimony-novel written by a high-ranking officer of the French army on his experience in Kosovo : J. Armen, Dernière danse à Pristina, Ramsay, Paris, 2007.

[2] Human Right Watch report, Under Orders – War Crimes in Kosovo, Genève 2001, op.cit., chap. 17. Human Right Watch points out that the criminal practices of the UCK towards the civilian populations are patent since 1998.

[3] J. Sapir, Le Krach Russe, La Découverte, Paris, 1998.

[4] J. Sapir, “Russia’s Crash of August 1998: Diagnosis and Prescriptions”, in Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 15, n°1/1999, pp. 1-36 ; from the same author: ) “The Russian Economy: From Rebound to Rebuilding”, in Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 17, n°1, (janvier-mars 2001), pp. 1-22.

[5] V.M. Kapicyn, O.A. Gerasimenko, L.N. Andronova, “Analiz Ekonomicheskoj situacii v Promyshlennosti Rossii v 1999-2000″ _Analysis of the economic situation in Russian industry 1999-2000_ in Problemy Prognozirovanija, n°5/2001, pp. 92-99. M.N. Uzjakov, “O perspektyvah ekonomitcheskogo rosta v Rossii” _On the prespectives of economic growth in Russia_ in Problemy Prognozirovanja, n° 4/2002, pp. 3-14.

[6] J. Sapir, “L’évolution des relations américano-russes”, in Les Cahiers du CHEAr, n°42, Printemps 1999, pp. 27-44.

[7] Primakov E., Le monde après le 11 septembre et la guerre en Irak, Presses de la renaissance, Paris, 2003, p.18. Translation from Mir Posle 11 sentjabrja, Mysl, _Le monde après le 11 septembre_ Moscou 2002

[8] In reference to an important debate of the years 1949-1950 about China (“ Who lost China ”) this debate was used by the neo-conservative factions in order the discredit the policies of the Clinton administration and of the democrats.

[9] Sapir J., Le Nouveau XXIè Siècle, le Seuil, Paris, 2008


Jacques Sapir

Ses travaux de chercheur se sont orientés dans trois dimensions, l’étude de l’économie russe et de la transition, l’analyse des crises financières et des recherches théoriques sur les institutions économiques et les interactions entre les comportements individuels. Il a poursuivi ses recherches à partir de 2000 sur les interactions entre les régimes de change, la structuration des systèmes financiers et les instabilités macroéconomiques. Depuis 2007 il s'est impliqué dans l’analyse de la crise financière actuelle, et en particulier dans la crise de la zone Euro.

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