Primakov’s Death United Russians More than Crimea, a Measure of the Sickness of Russian Society, Portnikov Says

July 1, 2015
President Vladimir Putin receives Yevgeny Primakov (R)

Staunton, July 1 The passing of Yevgeny Primakov “unexpectedly unified Russian society no less” and quite possibly more than the Crimean Anschluss, and the basis of this – an “indisputable faith in the greatness of the old Soviet nomenklatura” represents “a real diagnosis of the illness of Russian or more precisely post-Soviet society,” Vitaly Portnikov says.

In yesterday, the Ukrainian commentator notes that “Primakov’s biography was quite ordinary for the times in which he lived,” a young man of somewhat obscure origins who married into the Chekist elite and never put a foot wrong as he rose through the ranks of the nomenklatura.

As an officer and agent of the KGB specializing on the Middle East first under journalist cover and then academic, Primakov developed the network of contacts both at home and abroad that were his greatest resource. And no one was surprised when he turned up in the entourage of Mikhail Gorbachev.

“And the question wasn’t whether this was an agreement with the weakening Gorbachev or the strengthening Yeltsin but rather how strong was the union of Boris Nikolayevich and the Chekists,” Portnikov says. “We found out the answer to that only in December 1999.” And even before that, Primakov transferred from the SVR [Foreign Intelligence Service] to the foreign ministry.

Those who suggest that in that new capacity, Primakov “revised Russian foreign policy away from attempts to become a normal European and civilized country” to being a remake of the Soviet past “are not entirely correct.” In fact, Portnikov says, that shift happened earlier, and the last months of Andrei Kozyrev’s ministry and all of Primakov’s are “like two peas in a pod.”

Even when Primakov became prime minister, the Ukrainian commentator continues, he did not take any independent actions. His turning of his plane around over the Atlantic was completely in line with the Kremlin’s policies at that time, although now it is viewed “almost an act of state wisdom.” That too is a measure of how bad things are in the Russian elite.

“When people talk about a possible Primakov presidency, they forget” something important: he and his prime ministry were inseparable from Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov and his political clan and that as a result, he could do nothing but push forward the same kind of people as himself – former officers of the Soviet and then Russian intelligence services.

Such people now form such a large component of the very highest levels in Moscow that it is quite appropriate to say that today “there is a Primakov regime without Primakov.” And that makes it entirely understandable why someone like Vladimir Putin should mourn his passing. “But why are many Russian ‘liberals’ who have declared [Primakov] ‘a great politician’ and ‘understanding statesman’ doing the same?”

The answer, Portnikov suggests, is that “Primakov, a former candidate member of the Politburo produced among them the same holy thrill as Yeltsin, another former candidate member of the Politburo,” and the fact that this happened in both cases shows how little the liberals understand the nature of the Soviet system.

Such people, he continues, “do not understand that those who rose on the latter of a party career in one of the most appalling systems in modern history never were politicians or statesmen. They were imitators, working for the preservation of influence of a narrow circle of unprincipled careerists.”

“Whom did Yevgeny Maksimovich not imitate over the course of his long life! Bureaucrat, journalist, scholar, diplomat, politician, ‘gray cardinal.’” Certainly by the end, “he himself did not know who he in fact was.” But of course “he led a tasty, successful and comfortable life on the ruins of his own country like the other people of his circle.”

Portnikov concludes by noting that a few days before Primakov’s death, Saddam Hussein’s former prime minister and foreign minister Tariq Aziz died,” someone who followed a similar life of imitation but who “experienced a complete collapse of the hateful system which he served and in which like Primakov in his he wanted to be the best student of the dragon.”

“As a result,” the Ukrainian commentator says, Tariq Aziz “died in prison under a death sentence.” He did not get a pompous funeral, but “as before, there are not a few politicians and diplomats in the Middle East who are ready to recognize him as an outstanding politician and diplomat – even among Arab ‘liberals.’”

Given the possibility that the same thing could have happened to him, Portnikov says, Primakov was more “lucky” than even he may have appreciated. But it is far from clear that his country has been given that so many of its leaders and their liberal opponents clearly do not appreciate that fact.