YeltsinClinton
© Reuters
US President Bill Clinton holds a meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Istanbul, November 18, 1999.
Almost 600 pages of transcripts from meetings and phone calls between US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin paint a picture of a time when the West liked Russia because Moscow did what it was told.

"You have guided your country through a historic time and you are leaving a legacy that will leave Russians better off for years to come," Clinton told Yeltsin in a phone call on December 31, 1999, the day the Russian leader announced his surprise resignation.

"I know that the democratic changes you led made it possible for Russia to be integrated into the international community," Clinton continued, adding that historians will call Yeltsin "the father of Russian democracy" who worked to "make the world a safer place."


The Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas released the memos of 18 personal conversations and 56 telephone conversations between Clinton and Yeltsin last month, though the publication has gone largely unnoticed until Thursday. The documents span the time between January 1993, when the US president took office, and the Russian president's resignation in December 1999. They also show a relationship Clinton pitched to Yeltsin as a "cooperative equal partnership" between the US and Russia, but which largely consisted of the US leader issuing demands and Yeltsin obediently carrying them out.

That is not to say that the Russian leader would not make requests of his US counterpart. Yeltsin asked for a lot of things, from support in the 1996 Russian presidential election to promises that NATO expansion will not include former Soviet republics. Clinton refused any sort of "gentleman's agreement" on NATO expansion, and told Yeltsin he had to push for enlargement because of domestic politics. Republicans, he said, were using the issue to win support among Americans of Eastern European descent in the Midwest.


The US leader was more forthcoming when Yeltsin's requests had to do with keeping him in power in Moscow. In the run-up to the notorious 1996 election, Yeltsin painted a picture of apocalypse that would arise if the Communists won:

"They would destroy everything. It would be civil war," the Russian president said in April 1996, accusing his opponents of wanting to "take back Crimea; they even make claims against Alaska."


In June, Yeltsin pleaded for money. The Paris Club creditors had rescheduled Russia's debt payments and the IMF had approved what would become a $10.2 billion loan, which would arrive later that year.

"Bill, for my election campaign, I urgently need for Russia a loan of $2.5 billion," he said. "I need money to pay pensions and wages."

"I'll check on this with the IMF and some of our friends and see what can be done," responded Clinton.


Between the US-backed funding and a propaganda campaign managed by US consultants - which was acknowledged on the cover of TIME magazine and even made into a feature film called 'Spinning Boris' - Yeltsin won that election.

Time and again, Boris delivered for Bill - including in the spring of 1999. To silence Russia's objections to NATO's attack on Yugoslavia over the Serbian province of Kosovo, Clinton argued that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was a "bully" who should not be allowed to "destroy the relationship we worked hard for over six and a half years to build up."

"I'm sorry he is a Serb. I wish he were Irish or something else, but he is not," Clinton said.


During the 78-day NATO campaign, Yeltsin appeared to be under tremendous pressure from his surroundings, offering at one point to meet Clinton "in some hiding place... either on a boat or some submarine or some island so not a single person will disturb us."


Though Yeltsin eventually gave Clinton everything he demanded on the issue of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, he did warn the US leader that the bombing would result in losing the hearts and minds of Russians.

"Our people will certainly from now have a bad attitude with regard to America and with NATO," the Russian president told Clinton in March 1999. "I remember how difficult it was for me to try and turn the heads of our people, the heads of the politicians towards the West, towards the United States, but I succeeded in doing that, and now to lose all that."

Later that year, Yeltsin told Clinton he had found a designated successor: Vladimir Putin. He introduced Putin to Clinton as "a solid man" in September 1999, adding, "I am sure you will find him to be a highly qualified partner."


Putin is "a democrat, and he knows the West," Yeltsin told Clinton in Istanbul in November, the last time the two leaders met. "You'll do business together. He will continue the Yeltsin line on democracy and economics and widen Russia's contacts. He has the energy and the brains to succeed."

During that summit, Yeltsin also appealed to Clinton to "Just give Europe to Russia. The US is not in Europe. Europe should be the business of Europeans. Russia is half European and half Asian. ... Bill, I'm serious. Give Europe to Europe itself."

Clinton politely ignored Yeltsin's rant. After all, here was a man who for almost seven years did everything he was told. Under Yeltsin, Russia was bankrupt, weak, unable to stop the US from enjoying its "unipolar moment" that scholars like Francis Fukuyama described as "the end of history" - and Putin would continue along the same path. Wouldn't he?