Location Russia Russia

Yevgeny Primakov, Russian prime minister in late 1990s, dies at 85

Yevgeny Primakov, the former Russian prime minister whose career included desperate but unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to avert wars in Iraq and NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, died June 26 in Moscow. He was 85.

A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin announced the death. The cause of death wasn’t immediately known.

With his slow, rumbling speaking manner, hooded eyes and a face whose default expression was a sly smile, Mr. Primakov, a seasoned political scholar and Middle East expert, looked like the embodiment of an insider operative for a country full of opaque intrigues.

Mr. Primakov began his career on a classic Soviet path. Trained as an Orientalist, he worked as a journalist for a decade-and-a-half in the Middle East for Soviet radio and the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, positions widely seen to be covers for espionage work.

He later moved through an assortment of senior academic positions and joined the political scene in 1989, when he became chairman of one of the chambers of the Soviet parliament, helping spearhead Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s political reforms.

As the international drumbeat for war against Iraq increased in 1990, Gorbachev sent Mr. Primakov as an envoy to Iraq, drawing on his deep knowledge of the Middle East. By some accounts, he was the outsider whom Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein knew best and trusted the most.

Gorbachev in a statement praised Mr. Primakov for “defending the country’s interests with both resolve and flexibility.”

In 1991, Mr. Primakov was named head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service and held the job for five years before becoming foreign minister. As Russia’s top diplomat, he was regarded as a firm but pragmatic supporter of Russian interests as the country agonized over its loss of superpower status. He worked hard to dilute the United States’ perceived unilateral dominance of world affairs.

After being appointed prime minister in 1998 following Russia’s bruising financial crisis, Mr. Primakov tried to prevent the NATO air war against Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis.

He was heading to the United States on official visit in March 1999 when he learned that Washington decided to launch the air raids, and ordered his pilots to turn the plane back while it was already halfway over the Atlantic, a bold move that helped bolster his popularity at home.

Mr. Primakov lost the premier’s job in May 1999 while the NATO bombing campaign was still going on. By many accounts, President Boris Yeltsin feared Mr. Primakov’s rising influence and popularity.

Mr. Primakov was widely seen as a top contender to succeed Yeltsin, but sensationalist criticism of him and his alleged poor health on television controlled by supporters of Putin deflated his aspirations. By the time Putin, a former KGB officer, became acting president when Yeltsin stepped down in the closing hours of 1999, Mr. Primakov’s chances of election had vanished.

Putin nonetheless continued to tap Mr. Primakov’s expertise in tackling global crises. He made Mr. Primakov Russia’s top envoy to Iraq to try to stave off the brewing war in 2003. Mr. Primakov also was among those who tried to mediate with Chechen terrorists who seized a Moscow theater and hundreds of hostages in 2002.

Mr. Primakov also continued to wield considerable influence as the chairman of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, a Russian business advocacy group, a post he held from 2001 to 2011.

Mr. Primakov was born in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev — then a part of the Soviet Union — on Oct. 29, 1929, according to official reports. He grew up with his mother, a gynecologist, in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

The details of his early like are murky; some news accounts suggested that his father was from a Jewish family, and that he died during a Stalin-era purge in the late 1930s.

Mr. Primakov graduated in 1953 from Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies and then did graduate work in economics from Moscow State University.

According to Bloomberg News, his first wife, Laura Vasilievna Kharadze, died of heart disease in 1987. He married his second wife, Irina, a doctor, seven years later. Mr. Primakov had a daughter, Nana, from his first marriage. His son, Alexander, died of a heart attack at age 27 during a May Day parade in Moscow in 1981.

— Associated Press

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