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Primakov, ex-PM 'who turned around Russia,' dies aged 85

27 june 2015, 10:21
0

Russia's former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, famed for turning around his US-bound plane over the Atlantic upon learning of NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999, has died aged 85, the Kremlin said on Friday, AFP reports.

A former prime minister, foreign minister and intelligence chief, he forcefully stood up for Russia's interests, opposed NATO's eastward expansion and locked horns with Washington during the Kosovo crisis in 1999.

Along with Mikhail Gorbachev, Primakov was considered one of the last of the Soviet-era political titans, and his mid-flight turnaround is seen as a watershed moment in Russia's foreign policy after Moscow's rapprochement with Washington following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

President Vladimir Putin "expressed deep condolences to the family and relatives of Yevgeny Primakov over his death," the Kremlin said.

"He was a statesman, scientist, politician, he has left behind a great legacy," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Putin's chief of staff Sergei Ivanov will head a state commission overseeing the funeral of the former prime minister who will be laid to rest Monday at Moscow's top Novodevichy Cemetery during a ceremony to be broadcast live on national television.

  'Impressive Legacy' 

Primakov's death brought tributes pouring in from across the political spectrum in Russia and abroad.

US ambassador to Russia John Tefft said Primakov had left "an impressive legacy of government service."

"He is without doubt one of the great statesmen and diplomats of both Soviet and modern Russian history."

Former Soviet leader Gorbachev praised Primakov for his decisiveness but also his flexibility, noting the two were friends.

"I believe he played an outstanding role in overcoming the crisis and he will remain in history," the 84-year old said.

Primakov launched his career under Leonid Brezhnev, sided with Gorbachev during the 1991 coup, served as prime minister under Boris Yeltsin in 1998-1999 and maintained a degree of influence under Putin.

He was installed in the top government job amid political and economic turmoil after Russia defaulted on August 17, 1998.

Primakov also served as foreign minister between 1996 and 1998 and headed the country's external intelligence agency SVR between 1991 and 1996.

A fluent Arabic speaker and fan of John le Carré's spy novels, Primakov was considered one of the country's foremost experts on the Middle East.

He personally knew Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Hafez el-Assad of Syria and sought, however unsuccessfully, to prevent the Gulf War in 1991 and a US-led campaign in Iraq a decade later.

Primakov is most vividly remembered for ordering his US-bound plane to turn around mid-Atlantic after he learned from Al Gore, his US counterpart at the time, that NATO had begun a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.

'Historic mistake'

Some said at the time that Primakov  -- who called the bombing an "enormous historic mistake" -- single-handedly put Russia on the path of confrontation with the United States.

"Primakov has turned around Russia," broadsheet daily Kommersant wrote at the time.

He was seen by many as a possible successor to Yeltsin. 

But he was sacked in May 1999 -- two months after the famous plane episode --- as Yeltsin felt threatened Primakov's alliance with Yury Luzhkov, Moscow's powerful mayor at the time.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov released a video address, saying Primakov was among the key authors of Russia's modern foreign policy.

"It was Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov who formulated a principle of multipolarity which has proven it has no alternative today." 

Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky said he was together with Primakov during his "turnaround over the Atlantic."

"And although of course it was him who had to make the decision he listened to everyone," Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man who spent a decade behind bars, wrote on Facebook.

  'Crisis manager' 

State news agency RIA Novosti called Primakov a "crisis manager".

"In the 1990s Primakov managed to save the SVR and the foreign ministry and then to pull Russia out of the economic spin."

In recent years Primakov retreated from active politics due to his old age and ill health but he still spoke publicly on international matters.

Born in Ukraine and brought up in Georgia, Primakov said Russia should support Ukrainian rebels but spoke against sending in troops across the border.

Speaking during one of his last public appearances in January, he urged Russia and the United States to cooperate to tackle "real threats to humankind" such as terrorism and drug trafficking.

Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center who personally knew the ex-premier, said that for all his assertive policies Primakov was not against cooperation with the West.

"He did not want a Cold War and had no nostalgia for the USSR," he told AFP.

"It is a paradox but having elected pro-Western and pro-market Putin, we ended up being much more anti-Western than we would have been had we elected Primakov."


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