Commentator: Czech NATO accession was possible under Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin, photo: CTK

On Monday, the news was announced that former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had died of heart failure aged 76. Throughout the world, Boris Yeltsin will be remembered as the man who dismantled the Soviet Union and led Russia in its first chaotic years of independence. The 1990s were also the first years of renewed democratic rule in this country, which had been a Soviet satellite for many years. Radio Prague spoke to Oldrich Bures, a lecturer at Palacky University in Olomouc, about the role of Boris Yeltsin in the formation of post-Soviet Czech-Russian relations.

Boris Yeltsin,  photo: CTK
"I would argue that Boris Yeltsin's main role and key legacy was that he was the man who buried the Soviet Union. Of course, in many ways he followed what Mikhail Gorbachev started, especially in terms of Eastern Europe's relations with Russia or the former Soviet Union, that is the famous "Sinatra Doctrine" which allowed each of the socialist systems to go their own way, so to speak. But it was only Boris Yeltsin who in 1991 finally gave up on the idea that there would be a Soviet Union and therefore also something like an Eastern Bloc. So I would argue that was the most important legacy from the perspective of at least the Czech Republic."

Boris Yeltsin,  photo: CTK
Boris Yeltsin was the first Russian president to visit the independent Czech Republic in 1993. At that time a crucial bilateral treaty was signed. How important was this treaty for Czech-Russian relations?

"Well, I think this was one of the key treaties, because there was very much a new leadership in the Czech Republic, a newly elected president in Russia who was at least at that time still seen as a key supporter of the democratic transition. So there were still lots of question marks where Russia will be going and whether there will be perhaps some revival of the need to have some sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, and this treaty, I think, was a clear mark at least from the perspective of the Eastern European countries that this would not be the case."

What would you say were the crucial points in Czech-Russian relations at that time? Was it the Russian debt, for example, or the former military presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia?

Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1995,  photo: CTK
"From my perspective, definitely the withdrawal of Soviet or Russian military forces which had been completed earlier on and then the second thing which was also possible under Yeltsin and which would probably not be as easy under Vladimir Putin - as we can see with the debate on the anti-missile system nowadays and the threats from Russians - was the Czech entry into NATO. There were definitely some voices from Russia, especially from some Russian intellectuals and from the Russian military that criticised our decision to enter NATO. But officially, they basically recognised that it was our choice and they cannot really do anything about it. So there was some noise about it but we entered and I think that was another major milestone on the road of the Czech Republic and in the way Russia looked at Central and Eastern Europe. This was possible under Yeltsin but I would not be so sure if it would have been possible under Putin if he had entered into power a few years earlier than he did."