Boris, the fighter

AS I walked behind Boris Yeltsin's coffin at Novodevichy Cemetery on Wednesday, I found myself thinking about the man I worked with closely for nearly eight years and the role he played in changing the world, mostly for the better.

By Bill Clinton

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Published: Thu 3 May 2007, 8:17 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:23 AM

Every time I met with him, Yeltsin left no doubt that he had two objectives above all others. The first was to make sure that the Russian people never again had to live under Communism, or autocratic ultranationalism. The second was to form a solid, lasting partnership between a democratic Russia and the West.

On the big issues that came up between us, Yeltsin and I had our differences, and his position was often made more difficult by economic problems and political pressures. But at the end of the day, he almost always did the right thing. He insisted on respecting Russia's borders with the other old Soviet republics. That meant standing up to Russian nationalists who might have plunged the former Soviet Union into the kind of chaos that engulfed Yugoslavia.

He made the compromises necessary to get Ukraine, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, to give up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons. He pulled Russian troops out of the Baltic states. He made Russia part of the diplomatic solution to the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo. And much as he opposed the enlargement of NATO, he accepted the right of Central European states to join the alliance and signed a cooperation agreement between Russia and the alliance.

Yeltsin really wanted the Group of 7 industrialised nations to take Russia in as an eighth member. The other G-7 leaders and I agreed, because of the progress Russia was making in developing a pluralistic democracy with a free Press and a vigorous civil society, and because of his critical cooperation on security issues. We saw the creation of the G-8 as a vote of confidence in him and his country's future.

The last time I saw Yeltsin during my presidency was in June 2000, six months after he became the first leader of Russia to step down voluntarily as part of a constitutional transition. Though the burdens of office and his heart surgery had taken a toll on his health, he still had his trademark bear hug and smile. He clearly thought he had done the right thing in stepping down early and in selecting as his successor Vladimir Putin, who had the intelligence, energy and stamina the country needed to get Russia's economy on track and handle its complicated politics.

I told him I was impressed by what I had seen of Putin but wasn't sure he was as comfortable with or committed to democracy as Yeltsin. Yeltsin replied that we would have disagreements as Russia found its way into the future, but that Putin would not turn the clock back and we would find a way to work together.

I saw Yeltsin one more time, when I went back to the Kremlin for the 75th birthday party Putin held for him last year. He seemed in good health and at peace with himself and his work.

Yeltsin was intelligent, passionate, emotional, strong-willed and courageous. He wasn't perfect, and he had to contend with staggering challenges as he led Russia away from centuries of authoritarian rule. But lead he did. At the end of the Cold War, Russia and the world were lucky to have him.

History will be kind to my friend Boris.

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, heads the Clinton Foundation

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