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Posts Tagged ‘Hafez al-Assad’

Sorting through my old files now that I am spending so much time at home, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now—starting with this one about my encounter with Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow in 1986.

I was in Moscow the week of April 20-27, 1986, with a group of American academics and policy analysts visiting the various “international institutes” of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  The most memorable of these meetings occurred on the morning of Tuesday, April 22, when we went to the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (commonly referred to by the institute’s Russian initials, IMEMO) and had a meeting with its director, Yevgeny Primakov.  In the 1990s, Primakov would become foreign intelligence chief (1991-96), foreign minister (1996-98), and prime minister (1998-99) before Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired him (partly out of jealousy, it was widely reported, that Primakov had become more popular than he was).  After Vladimir Putin first became president at the turn of the century, Primakov became an adviser to him and served as his special representative on various occasions before his death in 2015.

While not yet as famous as he would become later, Primakov was already well known as one of the foremost Soviet specialists on the Middle East at the time we met him in 1986 (when Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just over a year).  The Soviets at this time were clearly having trouble in Afghanistan; Gorbachev himself had described it as a “bleeding wound” at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1986—an extraordinary admission.  So we were eager to hear what Primakov had to say about Soviet aims in Afghanistan.

According to the notes that I took at the time, Primakov told us that the Soviet Union wanted to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and did not even want the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to remain.  He said that the only obstacle to a settlement was the continuation of American and Pakistani aid to the rebels.  He also said that Iran had agreed in principle to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.  When pressed on exactly what kind of settlement he would accept in Afghanistan, Primakov was very vague.  He said that it was the Afghans’ internal affair, though it was clear that he would not accept a government dominated by the Islamic fundamentalists.  I had the impression that basically what the Soviets then wanted was for the world to accept a less Marxist but still pro-Soviet government in Kabul and to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.

In retrospect, it occurs to me that what Primakov wanted in Afghanistan then is similar to what the Trump Administration wants there now:  to withdraw its troops but for the government in Kabul Washington has been supporting to survive.

Afghanistan, though, was not the only crisis that Moscow was then confronting.  Just in January 1986, there had been a short civil war in South Yemen (the only Marxist regime in the Arab world) between rival factions of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party.  In its brief life span as an independent country since 1967, South Yemen had experienced a coup toppling its first president in 1969, the overthrow and execution of its second president in 1978, the resignation and departure to Moscow “for health reasons” of its third president in 1980 who later returned to South Yemen (but not as president) in 1985, and then the civil war in January 1986 in which he was killed and the fourth president fled to North Yemen.  Later, just after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the fifth president would agree to merge South Yemen with North Yemen in 1990—a decision he would soon come to regret and unsuccessfully try to reverse in an all Yemen civil war in 1994.  All South Yemen’s presidents and other top leaders were either Marxist-oriented or outright Marxist.

Soviet relations with South Yemen was something that I was especially interested in, and so I posed a question to Primakov about this.  According to my notes, the conversation went as follows:  When I asked him to explain to me why the fighting occurred in South Yemen in January 1986, he said he wished someone would explain it to him.  I asked him if the Soviets contributed to the outbreak of violence by allowing ‘Abd al-Fatah Isma’il (the third president who had moved to the USSR in 1980) to return to Aden from Moscow in 1985.  Primakov’s response was to ask what could the Soviets do?  The Yemeni Socialist Party had elected him to the Central Committee Secretariat, and he wanted to go back, so Moscow could hardly prevent him from doing so.  When I mentioned to him that whenever the party and government leadership in South Yemen had been previously divided, this had always led to internal conflict and that this was the case again when Isma’il returned to South Yemen.  He responded that the USSR did not want to see another one-man dictatorship.  I had the impression that he had been willing to see a certain amount of instability in which different pro-Soviet factions vied with each other rather than have one strong man in power who could conceivably expel the Soviets (as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Somalia’s Siad Barre had done in the 1970s).  But this had clearly backfired in South Yemen.

At the end of the formal meeting, Primakov and the other Soviet scholars (who had not said much during it) mingled with us in the large conference meeting room we had been meeting in.  Primakov and I had a brief conversation on the side of the room where there were shelves with all sorts of books, mementos, and other items on display.  I noticed an elaborate wooden box on a shelf above my head.  I couldn’t see the top of the box, but just the woodwork on the side that was visible prompted me to point to it and say, “That’s pretty.”

Primakov chuckled as he reached up and took it down to show me that the top was a lacquered photograph of Syrian President (and Soviet ally) Hafez al-Assad.  “Not so pretty,” Primakov remarked and then put the box back up on its shelf.

I remember wondering at the time whether his comment was more than just aesthetic criticism.  Now I wonder whether there is a Bashar al-Assad box beside the Hafez al-Assad one at IMEMO.

 

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