By Edward Lucas
Last time I met Mikhail Kasyanov was five years ago, when he was prime minister of Russia.
Oddly, though we both lived in Moscow, his staff thought it would be better to meet in Salzburg at an international conference. The interview was formal and rather disapproving. He thought The Economist's coverage of his government was harsh and simplistic. I thought Russia was becoming xenophobic, authoritarian and doing too little real reform.
Last week we had lunch in London, in one of the most exquisite clubs in Mayfair (he paid). There were some changes. He spoke English. He was on his own. And having been sacked by President Vladimir Putin, he is running for president in 2008.
Most of what he said rang true. The Kremlin is full of thugs and yes-men, with nobody willing to stand up to Putin and argue out difficult issues. That may be why the Russian leader behaved so strangely during Ukraine's Orange Revolution, when he publicly backed the fraudster, Viktor Yanukovych. Putin's aides apparently misled him into thinking that he was as popular in Ukraine as he is in Russia, and that simply by making a public statement, he would change the outcome.
I was also interested in the question of fragility. The Russian government is now highly ineffective, with no central co-ordination of the ministries. The presidential propaganda machine is having to work harder and harder to keep their man's rating at 70%. Whereas it used to need just one hour of air-time a day: now it's two. Most Russians think that the country is going in the wrong direction - strange given that it is awash with oil revenues. It's a tantalising prospect for a presidential candidate: plenty of people might vote for you - but they won't hear your message because the media is so tightly controlled. Kasyanov says that whoever the Putin camp picks as their candidate, the election aftermath may be bumpy.
Perhaps wisely, he refrained from criticising, even privately, his ex-boss. He said that everything had been fine until the Beslan terrorist attack, which had given the hardliners in the Kremlin the chance to start restricting democracy. But he did concede that the attacks on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos and on the television empire of Vladimir Gusinsky, had been regrettable. And Kasyanov also let slip that Putin had repeatedly tried to get onto "Misha" terms with him, but that he in turn had insisted on maintaining the formal "Vladimir Vladimirovich" and "vyi" forms of address.
But the big question that I and the other lunch guests were interested in was "what should the west do". And here Kasyanov's message was much harder to understand. He strongly advised against bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and said that US Vice-President Dick Cheney's hawkish speech in Vilnius had been most unhelpful. The west should criticise Putin but not Russia and should do so respectfully, with attention to the country's economic achievements as well as the current rulers' political failings. And we should do so either when visiting Russia, or at home, but definitely not in "third countries". Doing otherwise will strengthen the bad guys.
That seems very odd to me. Russia is increasingly nasty at home and abroad - and the main pro-western challenger for the presidency says that we shouldn't defend its victims, for fear of making things worse. It's a familiar tune from the past ("give us what we want or it'll get much nastier"). But here it is again, coming from rulers and opposition alike.