News Analysis: Pro-arab Tilt of New Premier in Russia is Cause for Concern
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News Analysis: Pro-arab Tilt of New Premier in Russia is Cause for Concern

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The appointment of the staunchly pro-Arab Yevgeny Primakov as Russia’s new prime minister has aroused concerns about its possible ramifications for Russian policy in the Middle East.

Jewish observers, both here and in Israel, point to Primakov’s long-standing ties with the regimes in Syria, Iraq and Iran as cause for concern. But others predict he will moderate his pro-Arab stance in order to win Western help in confronting Russia’s severe economic crisis.

The picture is further complicated by persistent reports that Primakov is partly Jewish.

According to the recently published Russian Jewish Encyclopedia and numerous sources in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital where Primakov spent his childhood, the new premier is of Jewish descent and once had a different, Jewish-sounding last name.

According to Foreign Ministry sources, Primakov, now 68, has never spoken about his childhood and has never acknowledged being Jewish.

This situation is problematic, according to Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, an umbrella organization of Russian Jewish groups.

“To have a Jew at the head of the government is a luxury in Russia,” said Chlenov. “But having a Jew who is hiding his roots is even worse.”

Chlenov pointed out that Primakov will be forced to take unpopular measures to improve the failing economy and that this could eventually spark the ire of nationalists, who so far have supported Primakov for his championing of Russia as a country still to be reckoned with as a great world power.

If the situation in Russia grows even worse, Chlenov said, those who favored Primakov may remember his hidden ancestry and again pin the blame for the country’s woes on Jews.

Russia’s economic turmoil recently prompted the ouster of the young, reformist Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko. The Communist-dominated lower house of Parliament approved Primakov last week after twice rejecting President Boris Yeltsin’s previous nominee, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

In Israel, government officials were cautious in assessing the ramifications of Primakov’s appointment.

Sources in Israel pointed to the fact that Primakov, considering the leading Arabist in Moscow, repeatedly adopted stances favorable toward Syria, Iraq and Iran when he served as foreign minister.

The sources were also concerned by the strong support that he has gotten from members of Russia’s Communist Party — officials known to be less than favorable toward Israel.

Within days after Primakov was confirmed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote him a congratulatory letter, calling on the new premier to halt the transfer of missile technology to the Middle East.

The United States and Israel have been pressuring Russia for more than a year to stop supplying arms and technical assistance to states in the region, particularly Iran.

In the letter, Netanyahu strongly implied that Primakov’s close ties with Arab states could be helpful in stopping the proliferation of arms technology.

Those ties date back to the 1960s, when Primakov was stationed in the Middle East as a correspondent for the Communist Party daily Pravda.

Netanyahu adviser David Bar-Illan said Israel does not expect a change in Russia’s “generally friendly policies” toward Israel under the new leader.

But he added that Israel is still not satisfied with Russian efforts to curb the spread of nuclear technology in the Middle East.

Russian analysts say that Primakov’s former deputy, Igor Ivanov, who was appointed the new foreign minister last week, will be more neutral toward Israel and the Middle East than the man he is succeeding.

They note that Ivanov is a specialist on Spain, not an Arabist like his mentor.

But sources in Moscow say Russia will continue to pursue its traditional markets for arms in the Middle East, such as Syria, despite Israeli concerns.

“Russian policy in this sphere will not change — there is no question about it,” a Foreign Ministry official said.

Russia’s former ambassador to Israel agrees.

“Of course, we will sell arms in the future, as we did it in the past,” said Alexander Bovin, who served as Russia’s envoy to the Jewish state between 1991 and 1997.

The first appointment Primakov made to his new Cabinet — Yuri Maslyukov, who was named deputy prime minister for economic policy — suggested that this will indeed be the case.

Maslyukov is known for his long-standing ties to Russia’s military-industrial complex and is a leading defense industry lobbyist.

Observers say he will staunchly advocate the export of Russian weaponry to the Middle East to help provide cash for Russia’s badly depleted Treasury.

But, according to other sources, Russia’s financial woes may force Primakov to reconsider some of his past stances.

A former spymaster and member of the Soviet-era Politburo, Primakov is assuming the premiership at a time of profound difficulty in the Russian economy: The ruble is in a free-fall, workers have not been paid in months, bank accounts are not accessible — in many cases they are nearly worthless even when they can be accessed — and the prospect of uncontrolled inflation looms on the near horizon.

These problems could well affect the policies of the man who, after being appointed foreign minister in January 1996, maintained cordial relations with the West while at the same time making it clear that Russia would pursue its national interests even when they clash with the West.

Political observers here say that Primakov will have to pay a price for seeking financial help from the West.

Even though he is hardly sympathetic toward Israel or the West, Primakov “understands perfectly that today’s Russia cannot afford putting itself at odds with Western interests, including those in the Middle East,” said Konstantin Eggert, foreign editor of the Russian daily Izvestia.

“If Primakov is a clever politician — and his past experience has proven that he is — he should realize that Russia cannot now afford the foreign policy it pursued” before the current financial crisis, Eggert said.

As an example, he pointed to the issue of lifting U.N. sanctions against Iraq.

As foreign minister, Primakov had favored lifting the sanctions to enable Baghdad to sell its oil and pay Russia billions of dollars in debts and construction contracts.

But with the ruble’s decline at least partially attributable to the decline in world oil prices, Eggert added, that stance may now go by the wayside as Russian oil executives lobby Primakov to let the sanctions go unquestioned – – and thereby keep Iraqi oil off the world market.

This view may be borne out by remarks Primakov made last week immediately after his appointment

He repeated his longtime opposition to NATO expansion to include countries in Central Europe and his support for ratification of the START-II nuclear arms reduction treaty, signed in 1993 but stalled in the Parliament.

Pointedly, however, he made no references to Russia as a great world power – – the stance he had consistently maintained as foreign minister.

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