Los Angeles Times Interview : Andrei Kozyrev

Carol J. Williams is Moscow bureau chief for The Times

His voice, always soft, is reduced to a whisper by yet another tragedy in what has been a devastating year. But only hours after learning his country home had burned down, former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev exhibits little sign of distraction. He momentarily laments the loss of photographs, paintings and mementos commemorating the milestones of his 44 years; then, with signature self-control, he waves off further discussion of the suspected arson to tackle the hardly more comforting subject of where Russia is heading.

One might expect this career diplomat to be angry--or at least disappointed. In a year filled with accusations of political failings and marred by divorce, Kozyrev's fall from the Kremlin hierarchy culminated in the most humiliating of President Boris N. Yeltsin's recent rash of unceremonious sackings. But Kozyrev is not a man who gets angry. In fact, his attitude toward Yeltsin is stunningly loyal, the rational acceptance of injustice befitting a martyr. Unemotionally, he lays out a sober vision of the near future and an unshakably confident explanation of the recent, rocky past.

More than any other figure in Yeltsin's ever-revolving entourage, Kozyrev personified the less menacing Kremlin that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It was this association with democratic reform policies, as well as his grace and popularity in the West, that branded Kozyrev as too dovish once the political hawks resumed circling the Kremlin.

Kozyrev saw the ax swinging before it came down and hit him, so he had snagged a seat in the Duma during the December parliamentary elections. That also secured him a podium for the coming political free-for-all, as Russian voters prepare for the all-important June presidential election.

Kozyrev's ministerial limousine has been replaced by an old black Volga. His new office in the Duma is a cubbyhole compared with the sprawling domain of his successor, Yevgeny M. Primakov, atop the gothic Stalinist tower along Moscow's Garden Ring. But trappings of power appear to mean little to this man who represented the face of a revolutionizing Russia to the West for more than five years.

From his mobile office--the Volga, a black briefcase and a cellular phone--Kozyrev intends to keep the reform fires burning through what promises to be, at best, a shaky second presidential term for Yeltsin or a destructive drive by the reinvigorated Communist Party to turn back the clock.

Stepping out of the Volga for 90 minutes but bringing the briefcase and phone with him, Kozyrev visited the The Times Moscow bureau to talk about his new role as self-appointed ambassador for the rescue of Russia.


Question: In Budapest in 1992, you gave a forbidding portrayal of what the consequences would be for the rest of the world if reforms were to fail in Russia. Do you feel they are failing?

Answer: Yes. There is concern, a feeling of great concern and nervousness because of the current struggle to influence public opinion in Russia ahead of the elections. I think there could be considerable damage if there continues this trend toward stagnating or even reversing the foreign policies I was advocating.

Q: How would this damage manifest itself? What would be the indications that reforms are being disrupted significantly?

A: The damage will be mostly in lost opportunity--lost profit, in business terms. This would be very regretful because the country is in difficult shape. The living standards are low--so instead of moving quickly through the transitional period, there could be further postponement of improvement, or even reversal.

Q: What should America's policy be toward Russia now? Does Washington send the right signals to encourage reform?

A: What they are doing right now is more or less reasonable. The question arises: What to do next? If the Communists come to power in the next elections, then I would be very watchful of their performance. What to my mind is crucial now is that the United States administration and other Western governments concentrate on specific projects and investments. Even under Communists, there still would be hope for investment, for joint ventures, for regional engagements, for training programs and technical assistance. All this should be on a pragmatic basis--as it would be the best way to speed up the failure of the reform backlash. So I would very much urge that no one give up on Russia.

Q: Do you see the Communists led by Mr. Zyuganov as a reformed force? Have they mended their ways and changed direction since the Soviet era?

A: I think there are people with agendas on both sides of the track. It is important to see which faction within the Communist Party gets the upper hand. I think it is important to remain analytical and to keep cool. Don't panic. I try to convey this message to our partners abroad. Be pragmatic--because there are still some who are for reform and a market economy.

Q: Did President Yeltsin properly evaluate your role in developing Russia's foreign policy, or do you feel you were made a scapegoat for problems Russia had and still has--particularly in the Balkans?

A: I'm sure that this history will be seen in a much more objective way with the passing of time. Probably very soon people will begin to assess my work much better and see the significance. Later, there will be this realization from the state, an awareness that this was not an artificial or idealistic policy but the only policy which was both most suitable for reform, in political terms, as well as pragmatic.

Q: Is there a danger the Communists will pursue a more Eastern focus, the myth that by looking more committed to traditional allies that a superpower image can be recreated?

A: Yes, the Communists have pursued this trend. You can sense it. But Russia will soon learn, with or without them, that this is a self-defeating strategy, because it does not lead to any benefit for Asia or CIS states [Commonwealth of Independent States]. It leads only to a loss of status, a loss of opportunity. The policy of engagement with the West kind of compensates for the weakness of the economy and the difficulties of this transitional period in Russia. But entertaining the idea of a cold relationship, not to speak of confrontation with the West, this only multiplies the weakness. This is the policy of surrender rather than a policy of overcoming difficulty.

Q: Do you fear reform has taken on a negative connotation among many Russians, and this is why the Communists are threatening to regain power--because people are disenchanted with the process?

A: People know at the back of their minds, and will soon clearly understand, that the source of their dissatisfaction is not a so-called pro-Western policy or reform policy, but mismanagement of those policies, the hesitation on those policies, stagnation of the process. If the Communists come to power, the stagnation trend could continue. Then people will soon learn there is no alternative to real reform in foreign and domestic policy. I am not a fortune teller, but take my word for it. In no more than two years, there will be a new wave in Russian public opinion and at the next parliamentary elections there will be gains by reformists.

Q: Do you think that Yeltsin's performance as president now suggests he is still committed to reforms, or are you concerned by recent changes and personnel decisions?

A: I wouldn't put too much emphasis on personnel decisions. But I have to admit there is considerable concern in Russia about the attempts to win back public opinion. Yet I wouldn't rush into pessimistic conclusions. I believe the government still has time and the resources to actively defend and promote the reform cause. Only this can bring him victory in the elections. Any further yielding to the pressures from hard-liners will cost him reelection. Because I don't believe that people voted for Communists or communism when they voted for Zyuganov's party in the elections. They voted against the mishandling of reforms and against the difficult economic situation.

Q: Were you sacrificed by Yeltsin, did he remove you to pacify anti-reform forces?

A: No. I would not put it that way. Of course, there has been some backtracking. Let's face it, there is stagnation. In foreign policy, I suffered defeat in a few particular fields. But I wouldn't say that I was necessarily a scapegoat. I think it was real divergence of opinion. It was a genuine political conflict. I lost. I was overruled. I believe that my time will come again, that my policies will be brought back, sooner or later. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.

Q: How do you see your policy being brought back? Do you see yourself as a minister in a future government or perhaps as a presidential candidate?

A: I wouldn't rule out anything if it was important to the country. I wouldn't be a diplomat if I were to say a flat no. Never say yes and never say no. For the foreseeable future, I am well-harbored. I have my constituency--the people of Murmansk--and my seat in parliament. I want to enjoy this and do what I can for my constituency. Sometimes, it is better not to be a minister in the government.

Q: How do you assess your successor as foreign minister. Is Primakov more cautious in his policies toward the West?

A: I wouldn't want to pass personal judgments at the moment. I think I've said enough about trends in politics to be clear, but I don't want to engage in any personal comments.

Q: You've touched on your concerns in the event the Communists win the presidential election. What is at stake for the United States and other Western countries?

A: It depends on who will be leading the Communist Party--whether it is the outrageous group of people or the more reasonable group. There will be lost opportunities, but we will still deal with each other on a business level. Any investment, any joint venture, any cooperative arrangements will be a contribution to the eventual defeat of the Communists.

Q: So the West should not punish Russia for voting Communist--it should continue to invest into the system so that the people see that support is unconditional?

A: Exactly. Absolutely. This is my message. Don't give up on Russia. Don't punish Russian people, because they didn't vote for communism, they voted against hardships and mishandling of reforms.

Q: But because of the power vested in the presidency, isn't a lot contingent on whether or not Zyuganov is a reformed Communist and committed to integrating Russia into the world community? Do you trust him as a leader, with the powers that the constitution gives the president?

A: First of all, I don't trust Communists. Secondly, I will still try to discriminate against Communists and I will encourage the reasonable and pragmatic forces.

Q: Are you confident that the leaders of the Communist Party recognize that they are not being voted for, but that the status quo is being voted against?

A: There are different people in the Communist Party, and it is important to discriminate among them and encourage the good guys--to the extent that there are good guys in the Communist Party.

Q: Do you see Zyuganov as a good guy?

A: Let's wait and see.

Q: Is the outside world overreacting to the Communist resurgence?

A: I would caution against both overreaction and lack of reaction. Overreaction would be to give up on Russia. A lack of reaction would be to act like nothing is happening.

Q: Is President Yeltsin making the right move in seeking reelection?

A: There is nobody else. That's what we believe. Yeltsin still has a window of opportunity to really defend the reforms and policies and thus win at the elections.

Q: Does he have to speak now in an anti-reform fashion to bridge the gap with that part of the population that thinks it doesn't want reform?

A: No. Any giving up or any further yielding to populistic or anti-reformist forces would be a prescription for defeat.

Q: Do you bear ill feelings toward him because he rejected you?

A: No. This is political and shouldn't be mixed up with personal feelings. I think the personality and the figure of Yeltsin deserves respect, reverence, if only because of his place in history. After all, he was, and still is, the one and only popularly, freely elected president in the history of Russia. If only he leads Russia to free and fair presidential elections, whoever win, this will make history and place him in an absolutely unique place in Russian history for centuries.

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