MOSCOW — Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, whose career included desperate but unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to avert wars in Iraq and NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, has died. He was 85.
President Vladimir Putin on Friday offered condolences to Primakov’s family, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. He added that the president saw Primakov as “a statesman, a scientist and a politician who has left a very big heritage” and that he always wanted to hear Primakov’s view on global issues.
The cause of death wasn’t immediately known.
Primakov was said to have been born into a Jewish family, and reportedly changed his last name at some point. The former premier never confirmed or denied his Jewish roots.
With his slow, rumbling speaking manner, hooded eyes and a face whose default expression was a sly smile, Primakov, a seasoned political scholar and Middle East expert, looked like the embodiment of an insider operative for a country full of opaque intrigues.
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 cover 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 Primakov as envoy to Iraq, drawing on his deep knowledge of the Middle East. He was said by some to be the outsider whom Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein knew best and trusted the most.
In 1991, he 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 Russia’s 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, 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.
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 Primakov’s rising influence and popularity.
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 became acting president when Yeltsin stepped down in the closing hours of 1999, Primakov’s chances of election had vanished.
Putin nonetheless continued to tap on Primakov’s expertise in tackling global crises. He made Primakov Russia’s top envoy to Iraq to try to stave off the brewing war in 2003. Primakov also was among those who tried to mediate with Chechen terrorists who seized a Moscow theater and hundreds of hostages in 2002.
Primakov also continued to wield considerable influence as the chairman of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, a Russian business advocacy group, the post he held from 2001 to 2011.