Clinton shows Yeltsin how to woo voters: President's televised 'town meeting' exhibits a friendly political style that might have saved Russian reformers from electoral humiliation. Helen Womack reports

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The Independent Online
A 13-YEAR-OLD Russian boy asked Bill Clinton yesterday how old he had been when he met President John Kennedy. Had this inspired Mr Clinton to reach the White House?

'Come here and shake hands with me, and maybe you will be President of Russia,' replied Mr Clinton, who said he was 16 when he met Kennedy. He added that the US leader he most respected was Abraham Lincoln because he had made a vow: 'I will work and get ready and perhaps my chance will come.' The boy looked awed.

Mr Clinton was appearing on a live television dialogue involving a studio audience and a link-up with other centres across the country. The idea was to interest the disillusioned Russian people not only in his summit with Boris Yeltsin, but also in politics generally. The broadcast, taking the tone of a chat show, seemed to go down well with the Russians, who are not used to being addressed directly by Western leaders.

The programme started with a tactful speech from Mr Clinton, who said Russia was a great country seeking to 'redefine its greatness', adding America wished it well, without presuming to tell it how to run its business.

The US leader explained why he was supporting Russian reform. Democracy was difficult and the free market no panacea, yet better ways of making a society free and prosperous had not been invented. 'If the change seems costly, consider the price of standing still or trying to go back,' he said to ripples of applause.

Nationalists might complain that Mr Clinton was patronising Russians with his folksy show, which went out in the afternoon but could be shown at prime time. However, since Mr Yeltsin launched painful market reforms in 1992, no Russian politician has gone on television to explain to ordinary people why they are having to tighten their belts, and what benefits they might expect in future. Had reformists regularly talked and listened to Russian people in a friendly instead of arrogant manner, they might have been better rewarded in last month's elections.

Instead the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got a platform in parliament. Mr Clinton avoided referring to the man dubbed a fascist by his opponents, but he did try to rebut some of his arguments, again something reformist Russian politicians have failed to do.

Russia could indeed try to recover its lost empire, as Mr Zhirinovsky advocates. But, Mr Clinton asked: 'What would you do with an army of occupation in these countries, what would that give you? It would be looking to the past.' The measure of Russia's future greatness was whether 'Russia the big neighbour can be Russia the good neighbour . . . I believe you will choose the future. I know the present is difficult but if you choose hope over fear, then the future will reward your vision'.

As in his American 'town meeting' shows, Mr Clinton took questions from a selected audience, this time mostly Moscow University students, speaking impressive English, coupled with people in the streets of St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Stavropol.

The questions gave an insight into how Russians feel about the West. 'Are Russian democracy and the person of Boris Yeltsin one and the same thing to you?' was asked twice and each time Mr Clinton said no, although he was working with Mr Yeltsin because he happened to be President at the moment.

A man in St Petersburg wanted to know why the US was helping the Baltic states when they were 'violating the rights of ethnic Russians'. Mr Clinton replied he was awaiting the outcome of an independent inquiry about that, but promised Washington would not have 'double standards' on human rights.

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