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So Unforgettably Davos

When world leaders and the movers and shakers of the business world meet for five days each year in the remote Swiss ski resort of Davos, there are bound to be memorable moments. This year's World Economic Forum has been no exception.

There was the ghastly moment when four important Russian politicians, including First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, sat tongue-tied on a stage when a questioner asked them to describe for the audience the personality and policies of Russia's new leader, Acting President Vladimir Putin. Not one dared speak up.

Putin is too busy running the war against Russia's Chechen Republic to attend this year's Davos summit, and is almost certain to win the March Presidential election.

As the director of a Russian think tank remarked later in private, of course everyone in Russia knows who Putin is. He is a former KGB spy who is going to ride into the Kremlin on a wave of public approval because he ordered the destruction of the Chechen capital and the slaughter of many of its citizens.

So much for Russian Democracy.

And there was an unforgettable dinner at which guests tucked into Swiss veal while a former top official in Russia's biological warfare program described -- in chilling detail -- how many lives could be wiped out by terrorists with deadly pathogens.

So much for dinner.

Guests arriving for dinner debates at another hotel the next night were greeted by an imperturbable Swiss concierge who inquired of each, "Hong Kong, or Money Laundering?"

I chose the Money Laundering roundtable and heard one of Russia's leading billionaire oligarchs describe how he salts away a fortune in foreign banks because only a fool would put money in a Russian bank.

It was generally agreed that international efforts to crack down on money laundering are a losing proposition.

The big topic at Davos this year was the Internet and the dot coms, and how can the rest of the world become instantly rich. Hundreds of top business executives sat spellbound while Bill Gates murmured that thinking up "cool" software was "the most fun thing."

He later announced here that his Gates Foundation, which has already pledged $2.5 billion for international health projects, is now going to finance the vaccination of poor children around the world. Gates may not be eloquent, but his money certainly is.

By Tom Fenton
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