|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
17 - 23 September 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The right man for the job
In an unprecedented political duel, the Duma recently twice rejected the presidential candidate for the office of prime minister at this critical time in Russian politics. The Kremlin succumbed, and Yevgeny Primakov was chosen as the new Russian premier.
Primakov has a distinguished academic and diplomatic career. He was appointed foreign minister in 1996. He so excelled in this capacity that both allies and enemies considered him one of the best foreign ministers of this century. Small wonder that Primakov was unanimously voted into office. His election was hailed both inside Russia and abroad.
Primakov is a skilled diplomat with a distinguished personality and a strong presence. He thinks before he speaks, has good judgment and is a rational man -- all qualities which enable him to tackle the very thorny issues facing Russia today. Perhaps the most important of these is his country's position on the world map. Russia is hardly a small or insignificant country. What was so alarming about Russia's deteriorating political and economic situation was precisely the fact that it is a world power of tremendous influence and potential. Until very recently, Russia was the second greatest power in the world. It was the only nation capable of at least partially moderating American hegemony, and serving as a counterbalance to US force.
No one seriously expects Moscow to resume the role it played as the capital of the USSR on the international arena. The Soviet Union was suffocated by an oppressive bureaucracy and an over-centralised economy. It is equally clear that dramatic changes such as those the country has witnessed in recent years are often accompanied by chaos, a crisis of legitimacy and rampant corruption. This environment makes it possible for opportunists, lackluster technocrats and unknown officials to rise to the pinnacle of power.
The sudden and dramatic changes witnessed by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), furthermore, had not been based on practical plans and careful calculations. Many factors were completely ignored, most importantly people's ability to cope with the new regime -- and the new chaos. The most pressing concern for the Russian public was the lack of basic goods and services, which during the communist era were provided at nominal prices. Overnight, the vast majority of citizens of the former Soviet Union were being forced to spend their entire monthly wages -- if and when they were paid -- within a few days. Many were forced to forage for food in rubbish heaps, while a fortunate few turned to the criminal underworld and jumped on the mafia bandwagon in a desperate bid to survive.
In short, ordinary citizens felt both abandoned and oppressed. Evil forces seemed to control everyday life.
To make matters worse, the new Russian political elite turned to the West for help, in the belief that Western interests dictated the complete destruction of the old order. It did not occur to these dreamers that the West might have an alternative agenda, based on the assumption that a strong Russia would pose a threat to Western.
Russia, therefore, received meagre foreign aid, mainly from Berlin, in return for Moscow's support for German unification. International financial institutions never quite fulfilled the expectations of the CIS's new rulers. These institutions enforced their own monetary and economic policies, but abandoned the recipients as soon as disaster struck, citing ignorance, corruption and mismanagement as the reasons for failure. International financial institutions have little interest in investing in any sector but the petroleum and natural gas industries. These sectors were deemed particularly interesting when it became apparent that the CIS's energy reserves were far greater than first anticipated.
It then became crystal clear that the Russian people would have to depend on themselves. Others would only help if such assistance served their own interests.
Before Primakov's nomination, the picture was bleak. Russia's status and capabilities are far greater than the political and economic chaos prevailing only a few weeks ago seemed to suggest. The new prime minister, however, faces an arduous task. Enormous efforts will be necessary to rein in the Mafia and the new gangsters currently running large sectors of the country. Controlling domestic chaos, therefore, will probably be Primakov's priority. As for Russia's international standing, he must enhance Russia's influence in world peacekeeping and security efforts, and not only in issues related to nuclear non-proliferation.
Primakov's record bodes well for the future, although he cannot achieve miracles alone. He will face immense obstacles. If the new government consists of hand-picked professionals headed by Primakov, however, he may well be successful in putting a halt to the unraveling of the economy, the financial system, management and security. Primakov should consider the words of John Maynard Keynes, one of the gurus of capitalism, who warned that diminishing the role of the state, and leaving matters to the vagaries of the market, was a highly dangerous exercise. The state, Keynes advised, must play a pivotal role in directing the national economy through monetary and financial policy. I believe this is where the skills of the new prime minister must come into play.
Primakov's statements since he took office indicate that he is well aware of this reality. I have considerable faith in him, since he combines the best of academic excellence and practical experience. As an economic expert, he wrote a book on the Egyptian economy during Nasser's regime, and he has had long and varied experience as a journalist, the head of the KGB, and as a diplomat. Those who know him personally acknowledge Primakov's keen intellect and intellectual humility. He is noted for his honesty, sincerity, objectivity and ability to listen carefully to what others have to say.
* The writer is chief of the President's Bureau for Political Affairs.