President Scores High Marks for Dinner Party

President Vladmir Putin, speaking at a dinner Saturday, impressed Valdai Discussion Club members as sincere and knowledgeable but left them unsatisfied with his answers to questions about democracy and energy markets.

"Putin confirmed his image as a competent leader," said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He said the right words and created a good impression."

But Michael Binyon of The Times of London voiced doubt about the president's comments on the direct election of regional governors and conflicts of interest facing some Kremlin officials.

Putin seems "sensitive to criticism of [his] undermining democracy," Binyon said. The subject was raised when Putin was pressed about his power to appoint and dismiss regional governors. A new proposal would make it even easier for the president to fire governors.

Binyon added that Putin's explanation -- that a strong hand was needed to do away with irresponsible or corrupt regional officials -- was "not convincing."

Putin is cultivating an image of "a statesman trying to do the best for his country," rather than a politician looking to extend his own power, Binyon said.

Reflecting on Putin's comments, Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Nixon Center, a foreign policy think tank, said Putin's bold plans for revamping the economy over the next three or four decades -- boosting the high-tech sector, for instance -- could be jeopardized if Russia's oil revenues slipped.

Unfortunately, Saunders added, Putin does not appear committed to opening up energy markets to foreign companies or stimulating more domestic investment in developing new oil and gas fields, improving production and other key areas. "There's a bit of a risk that prosperity may not last that long," he said.

Attendees were impressed with Putin's repeated assurance that he would not seek to stay in power past 2008 and the president's apparent willingness to get tough with Iran over its nuclear program. They also gave the president kudos for giving them three hours of his time at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence after his trip to South Africa and Morocco.

"It was an amazing meal," Binyon said. "We were his guests. He was very generous and in a warm mood. ... We wanted to be friendly and supportive."

Marshall Goldman, a Russian economy specialist at Harvard University who called himself Putin's "hardest questioner," lamented the lack of tough questions. "This group is being tamed," Goldman said.

At previous Valdai Discussion Club meetings, Putin was questioned about Chechnya and Ukraine's Orange Revolution, among other thorny issues.

Saunders said he regretted not being able to ask Putin a question about Russia's arms sales in the Middle East. Cohen said it was unclear how the country would improve relations with Arab leaders in the Middle East, as it has sought to do, while fighting terrorism.

Cohen said he would have liked to ask the president about Russian-Georgian relations, strained by conflicts in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Also, he said, he would have liked to hear more about Moldova's breakaway province of Transdnestr, which has strong ties to Russia.