Finns cater for every need at historic summit

Bill Clinton's handlers could scarcely have handed a greater gift to the scoffing wags of late-night American television comedy. The President, a notorious foodie, touched down in Helsinki only to be offloaded into an airline catering truck. He came to make history, but arrived like a consignment of frozen chicken wings.

"This must be the most bizarre arrival of any foreign politician on Finnish soil that we have ever witnessed," said Radio Finland's commentator. "He has now left the catering wagon ... and is being slowly wheeled down the red carpet and is shaking hands with members of the Finnish government".

You would have thought someone would at least have pinned a United States flag across the tell-tale FinnAir catering logo.

The band was cancelled, because Bill might have had to stand, a feat beyond him, though he had been working out in mid-air on parallel bars. Air Force One has its own gym.

An hour or two later, Boris Yeltsin swept in, in his brand-new plane, walked out on to the snow-dusted tarmac, and launched into a speech as if he had never heard of the words "coronary'" or "cardiac".

Round one of the PR war to the Russians.

It was more than a matter of Mr Clinton's fumbled entry. The Kremlin, which has the weaker hand going into the summit, has mounted a super-slick press operation in Helsinki. Usually cagey top officials have been drafted in to talk about immigration, freedom of information, relations with the West and crime.

Cleverly, the Russians have set up camp in the same building as the world's television companies; the President's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, only has to walk out of his door and he is surrounded by lenses. Outclassed, US officials - for years the masters of spin - have been left scrambling to catch up.

Nor is it only a two-way contest. The Finns have seized on the summit to promote the 80th anniversary of their independence from Russia. Non- aligned though they are, this is not entirely friendly turf for Mr Yeltsin.

Remarkably, Finland has the only Latin news radio service on the planet. As Mr Yeltsin and Mr Clinton sit down today, the following words will drift across the airwaves: "Praesidentes Bill Clinton et Boris Jeltsin in Finnia convenient ..."