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from issue no. 10 - 2005

Primakov’s witness

At the Russian embassy in Rome on 2 November our director launched the Italian translation of the book written by the former premier who guided the transition of his country from the Yeltsin period to that of Putin

by Giulio Andreotti

The launch of the Italian edition of the book Dall’ Urss alla Russia (From the USSR to Russia) by Evgenij M. Primakov, November 2 2005, at the Russian embassy in Rome

The launch of the Italian edition of the book Dall’ Urss alla Russia (From the USSR to Russia) by Evgenij M. Primakov, November 2 2005, at the Russian embassy in Rome

As well as the pleasure I had at the launch of the Italian edition of an earlier book on politics of his, I have two lasting memories of Evgenij M. Primakov, linked to the difficult year of 1991. In the preceding months many high-level initiatives had been taken in the attempt to convince Saddam Hussein to back out of the occupation of Kuwait he had undertaken, and was maintaining, in the belief that he could ignore without risk the order to withdraw issued by the United Nations Organization.
In truth, disobedience was the norm in the history of the UN.
Among the governments that deployed very serious efforts to get the Iraqi dictator to withdraw, the Soviets were in the front line and, as envoy of President Gorbacev, Primakov went several times in person to implore the re-entry of the invading troops. In our own small way we Italians also got moving, in close contact with Moscow and with various figures in the areas then defined as allies of the left or non-aligned (including authoritative statesmen from Latin America), such as Ortega.
Unfortunately Saddam only surrendered after the spectacular navy and airforce action of the forces put into the field by the UN between January and February of 1991.
When Kuwait’s sovereignty had been restored, the intention of punishing Saddam by invading his country was blocked by the large majority of nations, both for reasons of principle and out of the conviction (I remember a speech on the subject by Colin Powell, then the American commanding general) that setting foot on Iraq territory would be a real trap.
It should not be forgotten, for that matter, that Saddam had been fondly looked on by many Western countries when he went to war with Khomeini’s Iran.
It’s not difficult to make out – and I say so with sadness - that if he had not attacked Kuwait, Saddam Hussein would very probably still be in place, undisturbed, and a blind eye cast at the situation of the Kurds and the others.
But let me come to the second meeting with Primakov. Some months after the rapid Gulf War – exactly in mid July 1991 – the G7 met in London; and President Gorbacev was invited as guest of honor and he brought Mr. Primakov with him. Their thesis was very clear. They needed economic aid certainly, but above all they were asking for political understanding, specifying that this meant gradualness and differentiation in arrangements for the various components of the Union. To think of a single model was wrong and impossible, since the ethnic, economic and psychological realities were very different. We should take account of those differences. To ask, for example, the immediate restoration of the sovereignty of the Baltic countries went counter to the differentiated project, that unfortunately found little understanding with most of those present (President Mitterrand stood apart in an intelligent speech). A wise exposition by the President of the European Commission Jacques Delors on the altogether anomalous characteristics of the economic structure of the area – even with production integrated among neighbouring states – went unlistened to. Later Mrs. Thatcher (though she was not at the G7 having resigned as prime minister) wrote in her diaries that Delors was nostalgic for the Soviet Union. The fact remains that Gorbacev and Primakov left London with the sole comfort of a statement expressing the hope that they might be admitted to the Monetary Fund as observers. It was very little for statesmen who had the arduous task of getting the population and the armed forces to accept the dissolution of the Communist Party and the reunification of Germany. At that moment the dangerous manoeuvres of Mr. Boris Yeltsin and of other hardliners were inevitable.
But let us come to Evgenij Primakov’s latest book, the Italian translation of which we are here today to celebrate, with the emblematic title Dall’ Urss alla Russia, ( From the USSR to Russia).
I want, however, to set out another premise. In the post-war years Italian foreign policy was shaped by a sharp division between relations with countries and those between parties. So, when in May 1947 the Italian Communist Party was in tough opposition within the country, our government’s diplomatic relations with that in Moscow went unchanged and undented. And in the meantime, after two years, while wating to join NATO, there was no break in our proper relations of State to State. For years I myself had very frequent and reciprocally useful relations with Andrej Gromyko, in whom I also appreciated an intelligent vein of humor. As when, to suggest how cut off Western governments were from their peoples, he embarrassed me by asking – and I didn’t know the answer – how much a tram ticket cost in Rome. A bit later I turned the question back on him by asking about the Moscow subway, and he didn’t resent me for having to confess he didn’t know.
If in the book of which we’re speaking I was politically interested in the passages dealing with the great institutional shift, no less fascinating are the pages concerned with the author’s birth and upbringing. His father was shot in 1937; his mother was a factory doctor and taught him pride in himself and, to the extent possible, a certain autonomy. He remembers her great popularity among the factory workers and tells of the austerity of life in the single room assigned in apartments for family co-habitation (the same was to happen when he married young).
During his university years – he chose Oriental studies – he met young people destined to have a great future, among them Nehru and Tito, and he was to have later meetings with Tito after the latter’s expulsion from the Cominform.
Above, Primakov  with Yasser Arafat 
in Moscow in February 1997

Above, Primakov with Yasser Arafat in Moscow in February 1997

He became a journalist with Pravda and editor for radio. It was as the latter that he went in Krushev’s entourage to Albania and he reports the interesting comments of his chief on the cult of Stalin that the Albanians kept intact. In his turn Krushev scandalized the Albanian brothers by expressing condolence for the death in those days of John Foster Dulles.
As a political chronicler he followed from close up such important happenings as the coup d’état in Syria, the developments of Nasser policy in Egypt, the difficult relations between Baghdad and the Kurds. Some mention of the Baath party help us to understand the development of many situations. But also in other areas he had unusual experiences: among them interviews in Sudan with Nimeiry, whose program was to impose Islamic law on the Christian and Animist south of his country.
There are descriptions of great interest concerning his contacts with Arafat (to whom he stressed that a positive assessment of Saddam Hussein’s doings in Kuwait was a mistake), with poor Sadat, with Saudi figures and with the kings of Jordan and Morocco.
It’s difficult to say which of the eleven chapters of this book is the most interesting. There is – constantly – an interweaving of history and autobiography, bringing out a very strong personality and also an extraordinary ability to foresee changes and to conceive ways of handling crises.
Of very particular consequence are the detailed memories of meetings, at various times and events, with Saddam Hussein and also with Tareq Aziz (now subjects of legal rather than political reporting).

Primakov’s relations with Gorbacev – as is inevitable between two highly motivated and tough personalities – were not always easy. On the contrary. There are several pages depicting meetings and clashes, always inspired, however, by non-trivial considerations. I believe that Primakov’s vocation as an orientalist gave him an extra card to play.

I pass over the chapter on the secret services, which in every country and in every political season cause particular problems, over-eagerness in their agents, slackness in procedures. And we, too, are dealing with them after the revelations of a defector (Mitrokhin) cleverly exploited by the English and now in fact devoid of interest after so many years and numerous publishing ventures.

There is an evocative description of Primakov’s appointment as foreign minister, decided by Yeltsin on January 5 1996. I can’t personally, after only one meeting with Yeltsin, even if lasting some hours, make a competent judgment on him. It’s sure, however, that I carried away a disappointing and disastrous impression of him. Perhaps for the Russians he was punishment for having accepted (but what could they do?) the long years of dictatorship.
However our author writes that in the face of such insistence he could only accept.
He found himself dealing with the problem of the expansion of NATO. There is a suggestion in the book, that some time earlier (1990) Gorbacev is alleged to have put forward the idea of swapping a NATO withdrawal from Federal Germany against the withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany. But the idea – bizarre in truth – went no further.
Primakov’s diplomatic ability as minister turned out to be notable; and the evidence is his report of meetings, especially with the Americans. However, after some time, the formula of the “sixteen plus one” became the modus operandi; and that certainly contributed to real detente. The role of Solana is also recorded, of whom little was yet known. But the description of Yeltsin’s meeting in Helsinki with President Clinton, ill and in a wheelchair, is particularly colorful. Clinton is reported as saying to his Russian interlocutor: «Boris, have pity on a cripple».
However the talks, then and afterwards, were not futile; and the developments, that ripened later into the Putin-Bush joint declaration of May 24 2002 on the reduction of strategic weapons, are well depicted.
What follows is an interesting description of Primakov’s contacts with the difficult Mrs. Albright, whom Primakov – and this surprises me – describes as «incisive, determined, intelligent and (above all) fascinating».
At the end of this chapter, Primakov returns to the contacts had in various phases with Solana and describes the Russia-NATO relation as guarantor of peace through a constructive and solid compromise.

Without taking anything of importance from the rest of the book, I think that the chapter on: “The powder keg of the Middle East” is of most particular interest. Almost resigned, the author stresses that the area has never been capable of reaching and supporting either a state of war or of peace that might have led to the creation of territorial stability. And he begins his analysis from the time he was an editor of Radio Moscow programs during the Anglo-Franco-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 (after the nationalization of the Suez Canal) that ended with the Israeli conquest of the Sinai peninsula, of the west bank of the River Jordan and east Jerusalem.
Primakov well describes the involutions and evolutions in the area, recalling that in 1948 Stalin had also formally recognized the State of Israel. The principle of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians have since then cyclically inspired a variety of initiatives, before and after the Madrid Conference of 1991. Here in particular are depicted the hopes and the attempts to go beyond the continual critical clashes with Lebanon, with Syria, a little with everybody (bringing out also the different human types: from Shimon Peres to Netanyahu). The stress is also put on – and one must not forget it – the fact that there is an area of Syria still occupied by the Israelis, the Golan. The report of the meetings between Primakov and Netanyahu, and later Barak, is enlightening. But problems internal to his own part of the world took precedence for our author: among them the attempt by Abkasia to secede from Georgia. It is the disappointing close of this chapter.
Primakov with the American Secretary 
of State Madeleine Albright in Moscow in February 1997

Primakov with the American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Moscow in February 1997

On September 12 1998 Yeltsin promoted Primakov – if one may so speak – to head of the government, in a moment of great confrontation with the Duma, which accepted the new candidate with a vote higher than the quorum required. There was widespread concern for the general situation both of the economy and of all the rest. The moratorium in payments to the holders of the state bonds was a disaster and had put in question the validity of the policy of the so-called pseudo-liberals. Primakov sets out the project he backed for a real economic clean-up, but he also devoted himself to other spheres, showing insight and wisdom. The Chechnyan crisis (still not solved) was a tremendous negative blow, described effectively in these pages.
What the Chechen crisis didn’t do the Monetary Fund did – according to Primakov – and, in general, an alleged change in American policy toward Russia, both on the part of those who thought that Russia should stew in its own juice, and those who were critical of corruption and the attempt by the oligarchs to seize power.
Let me quote an important page from our book, not least because of the present relevance of the subject: «How had Iran become a matter of interest for Russia-America relations? Iran is a sovereign State in which complex processes are still taking place. It is characterized by an internal struggle between the secular movement, that is getting ever stronger, and the religious extremists, who still held notable power. The election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1998 showed that the vast majority of voters rejected a strictly Islamic organization of the State and of society. Another step forward came with the fact that Qum, the religious center of Iran, seemed against the idea of exporting the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini: it was one of the main characteristics of those Moslems who had gained power after the deposition of the Shah in 1979.
Russia kept a keen eye on all these changes, and not only out of pure curiosity. Iran is a region close to us with which we have for decades kept up relations advantageous for both. These relations still continue and not only is there a strong economic component to them but, from the mid ’nineties, included political cooperation also, especially on questions in which our interests overlap.
Of very particular consequence are the detailed memories of meetings, at various times and events, with Saddam Hussein and also with Tareq Aziz (now subjects of legal rather than political reporting)
I spoke on many occasions with Madeleine Albright of the situation in Iran, trying to persuade her that the tough methods that tended to make that country an outsider to the world community served only to worsen things, and so were counterproductive.
The cooperation between Russia and Iran for building a nuclear power station at Busher was always the apple of discord in relations between Russia and America. Washington was deaf to our explanations when we told them that what we were doing in Busher had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and that we were installing light-water reactors, whose characteristics and potentiality were identical to those of the reactors that the United States had promised China. A Russian organization had intended, and it was its only aim, to develop a scientific (non-military) complex in Iran and a uranium mine, but these projects were forbidden by the president of the Russian Federation».
This passage – as I’ve said – has a certain relevance today, following a mad declaration of the president of Iran.
I want to bring out a last theme in presenting this truly interesting book . Primakov was in flight for Washington for a meeting with Vice-president Gore, programmed on this matter, when over the Atlantic he received a call from Gore himself telling him of the American decision to attack Yugoslavia in a few hours time. Primakov’s attempt to make them desist, by recalling Gore on the telephone, after having spoken with Milosevic, was in vain.
The American and – unfortunately NATO – air attack destroyed the civilian infrastructures of Yugoslavia and, what is graver, many human lives. Mediation had been refused.
Primakov concludes the chapter with the melancholy phrase with which I, too, will finish my presentation, leaving to you, if you like, the reading of the chapter on relations between Primakov himself and the complex “President’s Family”: «I hope that as prime minister I was able to leave a positive legacy for those who have continued with success to try to put an end to the air attacks and then have worked to stabilize the situation in Kosovo. Unfortunately, at the moment of writing, the situation in Kosovo hasn’t yet found a solution of tranquillity and security for all».
We are not, this evening, able to say different.

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