Coca-Cola Co. CEO Neville Isdell gave firsthand insights about the potential economic and political implications of Russia’s newly elected president, Dmitry Medvedev, at an event hosted by the Southern Center for International Studies March 4.

Making it clear that he’s no politician or futurist, Mr. Isdell said it’s hard to predict whether Mr. Medvedev will follow Vladimir Putin’s hard line or take a softer approach than the man critics believe hand-picked Mr. Medvedev as his successor.

“The question, of course, about the new president is very clear,” Mr. Isdell said. “Will it be his footprint or someone else’s? Will he leave a footprint?”

Mr. Isdell led Coke’s rocky but successful bid in the mid-1990s to open a bottling plant in the former Soviet Union to challenge rival Pepsi’s presence there. He currently chairs the U.S.-Russia Business Council.

In an address at the Atlanta History Center, Mr. Isdell described stark improvements in Russia’s business climate and put forth a contrasting view of the men based on personal encounters with both of them.

He offered an icy description of Mr. Putin, whom he met at the Coke’s second plant in St. Petersburg.

“He smiled then as much as he smiles today, those steely eyes, a very severe individual,” Mr. Isdell said, adding that Mr. Putin works hard and is popular with many Russians because he has helped restore national pride.

Mr. Medvedev was “totally different” when Mr. Isdell encountered him at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2007.

At that time, experts were already projecting Mr. Medvedev as Putin’s heir apparent, and he used a shrewd rhetorical tactic in his Davos speech that Mr. Isdell believes showed a glimpse into Russia’s potential direction under Mr. Medvedev.

Mr. Medvedev spoke in Russian while describing the eras of former president Boris Yeltsin and Mr. Putin but abruptly and deliberately switched to fluent English to describe a “third era” involving a more nuanced Russia that would be “more engaged with the world.”

Whatever Mr. Medvedev’s agenda, Mr. Isdell seemed to think there is more cause for optimism than alarm if the U.S. will use “soft diplomacy” and cultural understanding in its future dealings with Russia.

Coke and other companies can play a role in facilitating that process, he said. He cited Coke’s environmental responsibility, work on AIDS prevention and the provision of prenatal care in Russia as projects that can give Coke a “social license to operate.”

“I do believe that business is a powerful agent for change in this world,” Mr. Isdell said.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...