Good and bad omens at Moscow summit

 

Rain fell steadily as President Clinton came down the steps of Air Force One holding his wife's hand. Rain a bad omen for the summit; hand-holding a good omen for the Clinton marriage in need of some "repair work", to quote his press secretary, Mr Mike McCurry.

Waiting to greet the President was someone else in need of some repair work - the acting prime minister, Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was rejected on Monday by the Duma and called all sorts of nasty names.

Rain was still falling over Moscow as Mr Clinton made his second outdoor appearance, this time at the Kremlin to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. American reporters who were given the run-around by Kremlin guards as they tried to reach the event later described their experience as encountering "Russian charm and Irish inefficiency".

God knows what they will come up against in Ireland later this week. North Korean charm and Irish sobriety perhaps.

For his third appearance, Mr Clinton was at last able to get out of the rain and go indoors to President Yeltsin's residence in the west wing of the Kremlin.

Before they got down to business, there was some bizarre gift exchanges. Mr Yeltsin gave a copy of an American flag which American sailors gave Russians in 1866 and then he gave Mr Clinton a round loaf of Russian bread.

Mr Clinton according to an eyewitness "took the bread, pushed down the centre of it several times with the heel of his hand and as he watched the top of the bread bounce back up, he declared: "Amazing, kind of like you."

It's probably the first time anyone has compared Mr Yeltsin to a bouncy loaf. Mr Clinton told an aide to take the bread and "have them cut it up for us". This sounds like the "Dry Bread Summit".

The Americans are fascinated with Mr Yeltsin's physical and mental condition. It was noted that at the flag ceremony he faced the wall instead of the TV cameras and refused even Mr Clinton's prompting to turn around. This led to a mad scramble by cameramen and photographers to get around the room.

The US media is reporting that Boris needs meetings early in the day "to stay focused" and that he gets tired after an hour of even Mr Clinton.

That's a bit unfair. Mr Yeltsin stayed up late last night to host a banquet for the Clintons and drink lots of vodka toasts.

This correspondent did a quick swing around Moscow to see some of the queues of panic-stricken customers outside banks with no roubles that they keep showing on CNN. Lots of banks but no queues.

Talking of the Clinton marriage, which has got pundits studying the First Family on each appearance to read the body language, the awful Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has threatened Japan with "more Hiroshimas", has chipped in with his tuppence worth.

He said in the parliament that people with Russia's high moral standards have no business meeting "with a man who cannot settle his relations with a secretary". "According to the traditions of Russian society, in this case, divorce the wife and marry the secretary. Turn this disgraceful page over," shouted Vlad.