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Finland mourns president who took country into European Union

Mauno Koivisto, Finland's last president during the Cold War who led the Nordic nation out of the shadow of its huge eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union, and into the European Union, has died aged 93.

Mr Koivisto died in the evening in a Helsinki hospital.

His wife, Tellervo Koivisto, said earlier this year he suffered severely from Alzheimer's disease and could no longer be cared for at home.

Mr Koivisto served two six-year terms between 1982 and 1994, enjoying great popularity among ordinary Finns.

His down-to-earth manner and dry humour won him the heart of the nation but also brought political opponents.

For most Finns, his presidency marked the end of the long reign of predecessor Urho Kekkonen, who had ruled Finland with an iron grip for 25 years until his resignation in 1981.

Mr Koivisto was seen as ushering in a new, freer era, changing the face of the country by reducing the powers of the head of state and strengthening the role of parliament.

He was recognised for his foreign policy skills, maintaining the small country's good relations with the West, particularly with the United States, and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War years.

His second term in 1988-1994 was crucial in cementing the Nordic nation's neutral status until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a great concern for Finland that shares an 800-mile border with Russia.

Russian-speaking Mr Koivisto developed a particular bond with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev but also stayed in close contact with US President George Bush senior with whom he regularly exchanged views on developments in the crumbling and rapidly changing Soviet Union.

In 1990, he hosted Mr Bush and Mr Gorbachev at a US-Soviet summit in Helsinki.

Earlier, he reportedly also had a good rapport with former US president Ronald Reagan, who stopped over in Helsinki in 1988 for talks with Mr Koivisto en route to Moscow.

Ahead of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1991, Mr Koivisto started to steer Finland out of international isolation.

He unilaterally declared two treaties as null and void, the 1947 Paris Treaty, which placed restrictions on the Finnish military, and the 1948 Finnish-Soviet pact on mutual assistance, which hindered Finland's integration with European security structures.

In 1992, Mr Koivisto initiated the country's application to join the European Community, the precursor of the European Union, and eventually led Finland to join the EU in 1995 after overwhelming support for membership in a referendum.

Born into a religious family in 1923, Mr Koivisto possessed first-hand war experience.

At the age of 16, he served as a volunteer on the home front in the bitter 1939-40 Winter War against the Soviets.

He also fought in the Continuation War in 1941-44, when Finnish troops battled the Russians beside Nazi Germany.

Mr Koivisto is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1952, and their daughter, Assi.


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