The Moscow Times reports:
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell [pictured, left, smiling warmly] called on the Russian leadership Monday to put its faith in the people and bolster the role of the media if it wants to build a real democracy. Soon after his keynote speech at an investment conference, Kremlin-connected political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov [pictured below, right, scowling menacingly] told the investors that Russians did not need democracy and that the era of President Vladimir Putin was just beginning.
Walking a tightrope between praising Russia's post-Soviet progress and encouraging the government to open up, General Powell reiterated Washington's line that the Cold War was over and U.S. military expansion would not hurt Russia. He told reporters later that Putin's recent proposal to share a radar station in Azerbaijan would not "derail" U.S. missile defense plans in Central Europe. Calling Putin a colleague and a friend, Powell told the conference that political pluralism needed to take root in the country and that people should be allowed to speak out. "Democracy has to be a noisy system," he said, adding that the media should have an opportunity to challenge the government on any occasion. In a nod to Winston Churchill, Powell likened democracy to a life raft and the waves and winds pushing it to people. "And people have to be trusted," Powell, the guest of honor at the conference organized by Renaissance Capital, told the packed hall. "And the trust comes from an open political process." In the eyes of some Western governments, Putin has stifled political opposition, deprived people of an opportunity to elect officials in free and fair elections and neutered the media.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Fund, a think tank, told the hall later that Russians did not need democracy, citing data from polling agencies. "Democracy doesn't feature among the problems Russians are worried about," he said. Nikonov, the grandson of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, said Putin did not want to be seen as a Russian version of late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who changed his country's constitution to stay on, and would therefore step down in 2008 but remain a major decision-maker. "My prediction is that Putin will not hold any post but will be a decisive force in the Russian politics," he said, adding Putin might seek the presidency again in 2012. "All of us are at the beginning of Putin's era and not at all in its concluding phase," Nikonov said, noting that Putin -- who would be the first Russian leader to voluntarily step down while remaining hugely popular with his constituents -- might become a Russian version of China's Deng Xiaoping or Britain's Winston Churchill.
In a similar vein, Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a big business lobby group, said upcoming national elections did not bother the business community because the outcomes would be predictable and the platforms of the country's political parties largely suited business' interests. Nikonov said he was 80 percent sure that First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov or Dmitry Medvedev would be elected as the next president and continue Putin's policies, but added that he could not rule out the emergence of a third candidate. His remarks echoed Putin's aide, Igor Shuvalov, who said in Washington last week that the president might reveal a surprise choice for his preferred successor and that he did not want to be compared to Niyazov. Nikonov said Putin might indicate his preferred successor by naming him prime minister toward year's end.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Nikonov had expressed his personal opinion, even though he was "in constant touch" with the presidential administration. Peskov sidestepped a question about whether Nikonov's predictions were accurate. Nikonov said relations between Russia and the West would neither improve nor deteriorate in the near future, saying the West should realize that Russia -- like Turkey or Japan -- was just different. That reference took some Japanese investors by surprise. "That's quite a mysterious comment," said Kazunori Watanabe, manager at London-based Mizuho International, an investment banking arm of Japan's Mizuho Financial Group. Watanabe said he would "probably increase" his investments into Russian companies, despite political uncertainties such as TNK-BP's possible loss of its license for the Kovykta gas field. "Putin's activities are quite unpredictable," he said.
Bob Foresman, deputy chairman of Renaissance Capital, said on the sidelines of the conference that the bank had wanted to give a "platform to different opinions" and that Nikonov represented "an opinion which is shared by more than a couple of people" in Russia. Timothy Brenton, a political analyst at the bank, said he had in the past set up meetings between clients and Nikonov and another Kremlin-connected analyst, Sergei Markov, because the investors had wanted to hear what was really happening in the country from "a well-connected insider." "Clients don't necessarily agree with him," he said of Nikonov. But "he's very honest." Nikonov was the only political analyst at a conference session titled "Politics and Economics" on Monday.
Powell, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the conference, insisted that businesspeople were interested in the rule of law and therefore should help create democracy. "Sometimes being a nag is the best form of friendship," said Powell, who previously visited Russia as secretary of state in January 2004. Powell had a closed-door meeting with Renaissance Capital clients after his speech and then promptly left.