By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who helped restore stability after an economic crash in 1998 and shifted the focus of foreign policy away from the West, has died at the age of 85 after a long illness.
A former Soviet Communist apparatchik, Primakov went on to become a spymaster and foreign minister who was seen abroad as a hawk but was revered in Russia as a statesman and crisis manager.
In March 1999, when he was prime minister, he turned his plane around over the Atlantic and abandoned a trip to the United States when it became clear that NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia, a Russian ally, were imminent.
For many Russians, the incident came to symbolize Primakov's refusal to kow-tow to the West.
"One of our country's greatest statesmen has died," former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said. "His passing is a great loss for all our society."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had sent his condolences to Primakov's family.
In his role as elder statesman, Primakov backed Putin over the Ukraine crisis although he said Russia had "somewhat overdone" its media coverage, seen in the West as propaganda.
Primakov, who succeeded pro-Western Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev in January 1996, set out a vision of a "multipolar" world to challenge what he called Washington's concept of a "unipolar" system dominated by the United States.
The current Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said those principles remained central to Russian foreign policy today and praised Primakov as "a great man, statesman, politician, scientist, journalist and publicist."
Born in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in 1929, Primakov was brought up in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. After graduating as an Arabic scholar from the Moscow Institute for Oriental Studies in 1953, he became a correspondent for state radio and television and worked in the Middle East in the 1960s.
He joined the Communist Party in 1959, entered the Soviet parliament in 1988, chaired the chamber from 1989 until 1990 and became a junior member of the ruling politburo under Gorbachev.
He played a prominent role in failed efforts to avert the 1991 Gulf War when Gorbachev sent him to negotiate in Baghdad with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Primakov was made head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and then foreign minister, from 1996 until 1998. He was seen abroad as a hawk but won respect from peers such as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during discussions on NATO enlargement.
President Boris Yeltsin appointed Primakov prime minister in September 1998, seeing him as a compromise figure to help ease political tensions after a market crash and effective debt default.
Primakov was credited with restoring a degree of stability but liberals accused him of freezing economic reforms and he was sacked in May 1999.
Primakov later aligned himself with a left-leaning political bloc but dropped plans to run in the 2000 presidential election when Kremlin power brokers united around Putin's bid.
In a 2003 diplomatic mission, Primakov met Saddam at Putin's request for peace talks to try to avert the looming U.S. invasion of Iraq. Three days later, the second Gulf War began.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Mark Trevelyan)