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Russian opposition leader gives high marks to Obama

After today's meeting between Russian opposition leaders and visiting U.S. President Barack Obama, former deputy prime minister turned anti-Putin campaigner Boris Nemtsov -- who was also recently a candidate in Sochi's bizarre mayoral election -- held a conference call with journalists to give his take on the President's visit. Nemtsov had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning urging the United States not to forget Russia's democratic opposition in the midst of the "reset." Overall, he seemed pleased with the tone Obama had struck:

He believes not only the existing government but in the Russian people. He understands that not only Putin and Medvedev represent Russia, but also the opposition including the democratic opposition represent Russia and business community represents Russia. ...He understand that "reset" is very, very complicated and very difficult task with the existing government of Russia, on the other hand, he understand that America and Russia face huge problems, for examples the Taliban in Afghanistan or North Korean missiles, or Iran threat etc. and no matter who is in power he has to connect.

I was curious what Nemtsov thought of the discussion of democracy in his speech at the New Economic School today, in which he seemed to emphasize the rule of law and fighting corruption over political inclusion or human rights:

He said that in 21st century, the only chance to be successful it to be democracy and be a country or rule of law. This is against Putinism, this is against the authoritarian style of regime we have now....He also spoke about the recognition of borders and and sovereignty of countries. Of course this is about Georgia, and it potentially about Ukraine. I think he did it very openly and made it clear for everybody, for Putina and Medvedev too.

Nemtsov says he understands that Obama has to take concerns other than democracy into account:

"The problem of the democratization of Russia is my problem and the problem of my friends and political colleages. This is not -- fortunately or unfortunately -- Obama's responsibility. I don't think the U.S. can help us to establish democracy."

In light of Obama's cautious response to the Iranian election, and the subsequent criticism of this position, I asked Nemtsov is he belives it is useful for the democratic opposition to have Obama speak out forcefully on their behalf:

I think that Obama as president of the biggest democracy in the world has to speak about that and he did in his speech today. I think it was absolutely clear for everbody. I don't think that Putin will be very excited after his speech...[When he discussed] rule of law, free speech and free elections, it is absolutely clear to Putin and Medvedev and everyone in Moscow what he is talking about.

Yes, it was quite cautious, I agree. But I think this is the good way. If you come to another country like a boss, like a teacher: "Guys, you did terrible here, now I explain to you how to do, how to run the country, how to move forward because I am a great American president and I know how to proceed," I think that such a strategy is not good.

But if you say very frankly and friendly: "Guys, remember, the authoritarian style is the wrong way. Not just for the state but for you," it looks more promising.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

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