HELSINKI — 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, died Friday at the age of 93.
The Finnish president's office said that Koivisto died in the evening in a Helsinki hospital. It gave no cause of death or other details.
His wife, Tellervo Koivisto, said earlier this year that he suffered severely from Alzheimer's disease and could no longer be cared for at home.
Koivisto served two six-year terms between 1982 and 1994, enjoying great popularity among ordinary Finns. His down-to-earth manner and dry humour, often laced with sarcasm and philosophical pondering, 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.
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.
Above all, he was recognized for his foreign policy skills with a fine balancing act of 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 a 1,340-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia.
A fluent Russian-speaker, Koivisto developed a particular bond with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev but also stayed in close contact with U.S. President George H.W. Bush with whom he regularly exchanged views on developments in the crumbling and rapidly changing Soviet Union. In 1990, he hosted Bush and Gorbachev at a U.S.-Soviet Summit in Helsinki.
Earlier, he reportedly also had a good rapport with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who stopped over in Helsinki in 1988 for talks with Koivisto en route to Moscow.
Ahead of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1991, 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, 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, Koivisto was a rare breed among Finnish heads of state as he 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.
After the war, Koivisto joined the Social Democratic Party, completed his education, graduating with a philosophy degree and gained a Ph.D. in sociology in 1956.
Koivisto emerged a key figure among the Social Democrats in the late 1960s and helped raise the party's popularity in Finland, which had been dominated by the former president Kekkonen's agrarian Center Party in the post-World War II era.
Before becoming head of state, Koivisto held several ministerial posts, including of prime minister, and had served as the governor of the Bank of Finland.
The tall and lanky Koivisto — a particular favourite figure among Finnish political cartoonists — was passionate about volleyball, playing into his elderly years with a group of industrialists and politicians.
Koivisto is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1952, and their daughter, Assi.
Funeral arrangements were to be announced later.
Jari Tanner, The Associated Press