Mr. Petrov, thank you for sitting down with us. You have worked with Yevgeny Primakov for more than a decade?
— Indeed, for more than a decade. He invited me to join the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2002. He quit in 2011 but he continued working with us because he was pro bono chair of the Mercury business club. It was a wonderful discussion platform but the club’s existence depended on him too much. When he was gone, there was nobody who was bold enough to take over chairmanship. Could the Primakov Readings forum replace Mercury in a way? It was always a major occasion and I never missed a single meeting. His introductory remarks have always been the keynote statement, that was all you needed to hear. You might just as well have stood up and left, the interventions to come would only be of secondary importance.
He had a knack to raise major questions in a very short speech. He showed the way how these issues in a number of areas could be resolved.
Following the discussions, he would always highlight some key takeaways. It was extremely important. I am happy that the CCI published the unabridged 10-volume edition of his works. It was a nonprofit project. We cannot simply sell it off or repay our expenses in any other way. I really appreciate assistance from the sponsors behind the publication. We circulated this edition across virtually all Russian regions, primarily across the university network, to make it available for students. It documents his legacy, not just on the Middle East, but across a range of issues that both Russia and the world are facing, politically and economically. He offered many solutions. You just need to read it carefully.
What do you remember most?
— There were many stories. He was a very bright figure. He could tell a joke like few people can, he was like the master of ceremonies at the lunch or dinner – he spent his young years in Tbilisi, Georgia. It was sheer pleasure just talking to him. I will never forget our visit to Beijing. It was like a state visit. He commanded a lot of respect there. So when he came again, they asked him who he would like to meet. Mr. Primakov said he wanted to see Jiang Zemin. He had retired by then and was kept in Shanghai in a sort of a golden cage shut off from any contacts with the outer world. I looked at the awry faces of the Chinese. “Mr. Primakov, why Jiang Zemin?» Well, you have to be Primakov to find a way to get something. He knew that numbers play a huge role for the Chinese and here is what he said: “You know, during my previous meeting with Jiang Zemin he said it was our eighth meeting and the number eight is a lucky one in China. But for Russians, number nine is lucky”… The Chinese discussed it a little bit internally… and finally told him: “…Jiang Zemin is waiting for you in Shanghai.”
They could not say no to that.
— It is the art of diplomacy. He would surprise and impress us every day. He would have multiple international meetings a day. Then suddenly someone would drop by, like a former foreign minister, say, from France, someone he met just once. And so this person would then ask him: “Mr Primakov, what are your expectations for the situation in the Middle East”. And he would lay out a detailed analysis, he was always ready to do that.
He would always make a point of saying he did not hold any office and whatever he was going to say was his personal opinion.
Everyone wondered how he managed to keep track of all the developments. He was beyond 80 when he began to use the Internet, read online press, for example, Al-Jazeera, or Egyptian press. He mentioned this in his book. I think it is a textbook for young diplomats.
There were so many countries that we visited together. Once we went to Israel. Actually, he did not like to go to Israel. It was perhaps due to the arduous mission that he was tasked with in the days when we did not have diplomatic ties and on behalf of Politburo he had to meet with Golda Meir, with Netanyahu via third countries like Austria, Italy, almost illegally.
He got to know them really well, they were genuine partners during negotiations. Also, he was member of the so called InterAction Council, a group that brought together former heads of state and government. A group meeting was taking place in Jordan, on the coast of the Dead Sea. Just a few days ahead of the meeting Evgeny Sandro, who is now again Evgeny Primakov, turned 30.
Mr. Primakov then said: «Let’s go to Israel first, and then take a car to Jordan”. And so we did. Our then ambassador Gennady Tarasov made a good agenda for us that, inter alia, featured a meeting with the newly appointed foreign minister of Israel, Tsipi Livni. A former justice minister, she was just two weeks in office. Here’s how the meeting started. Livni told us: “I don’t understand Russia. I attended a speech by Putin that was made here in Israel and I hoped that Russia would support Israel in the Middle East peace process, these terrorists…” Mr. Primakov interrupted her: “Wait, let’s set the record straight.” “You support Hamas,” she told him. “Let’s make it clear. Hamas is a military wing, есть политическое крыло. Didn’t Israel start by bombing hotels where the British resided? “Yes, but we did call them up and warned them that we will bomb that hotel”. “Anyway, civilians including children and women died because of that bombing.” “No, you don’t understand, Mr. Primakov.” This was the start of our meeting. Mr. Primakov then realized he would not be able to make her change her mind and said: “OK, let’s move on to our bilateral agenda.”
She realized she was not being too diplomatic and told him: “I am sorry, I got carried away”.”I will forgive you as a woman,” came his response.
It is classic, a textbook of diplomatic protocol. Following the meeting, we were escorted by the Head of the European Department of the Foreign Ministry. He told us in English: “Mr. Primakov. Don’t take it too close to heart. We are all crazy here in Israel.” Mr. Primakov looked at him and asked: “What did he say”? I told him: “Mr. Primakov, you got it right.” And this was just one episode.
Mr. Primakov had a gift. He once told me that back in the younger years he could hold seven meetings a day and later in the evening do a transcript of all seven meetings without making any prior notes.
I asked him then: “What about today?” “Well, I could do transcripts for two or three meetings.” Unfortunately, I do not take notes. During my first meeting at the CCI, I made some notes but Mr. Primakov told me nobody needs the transcripts of his conversations.” So I never did it again. I do regret it because it could have turned into a book or two.
He did not mention it anywhere but I do remember it really when we came to Riga to a meeting on border delimitation with Latvia, which was a really sore spot in our relations. He was meeting Latvia’s president and during the meeting he proposed an option. The president told him: “That’s how initially want to do it.” Mr. Primakov came to the embassy, called up the foreign minister and told him this option was exactly what we wanted. Mr. Primakov then told the ambassador: “Go and wire the ministry that we had a meeting and you struck a deal. And indeed the agreement was signed shortly.
Such people are few and far between! His grandson has taken over and is carrying on his mission.