Putin to host flagship investor forum in Russia despite Covid-19 risk, political strife

Vladimir Putin is facing deepening isolation amid some of the worst tensions with the US and Europe over cyberattacks.
Vladimir Putin is facing deepening isolation amid some of the worst tensions with the US and Europe over cyberattacks.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) - President Vladimir Putin will host Russia's flagship investor showcase as he seeks to demonstrate its stuttering economy is back to business as usual despite continuing risks from Covid-19 and new waves of western sanctions.

The St Petersburg International Economic Forum opens Thursday (June 3) as Russia's biggest conference since the pandemic erupted last year.

Even as organisers strive to return to a sense of normalcy, travel restrictions, safety concerns and fees three times higher than at the last forum in 2019 are all contributing to a scaled-back event.

The main event on Friday in which Putin holds court with other world leaders and takes questions from the hall will look different this time.

He will be the only leader on stage and joined via video link by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who's being investigated at home on suspicion of lying to lawmakers.

Putin is facing deepening isolation amid some of the worst tensions with the US and Europe since the Cold War over cyberattacks, espionage and Russia's support of neighbouring Belarus for diverting a passenger airliner to arrest a dissident journalist.

He is also under fire for a sweeping political crackdown on critics at home including the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

The political disputes have bled into economic ties as years of international sanctions dent growth and contribute to a slump in incomes even as Russia bounces back more quickly than forecast from the impact of the pandemic.

Sanctions and Russia's foreign relations, together with the rouble's volatility, were the biggest drag on performance, according to a survey of the Association of European Businesses members published last week.

Still, about 2,000 foreigners will attend this year's forum, with the US representation the biggest followed by the Qataris, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov said Monday on RBC TV.

US President Joe Biden said this week he intends to raise human rights with Putin at their June 16 summit in Geneva.

The forum's high cost deterred some. Anastasia Tatulova, a businesswoman who runs a cafe chain in Moscow, said she was honoured to be invited to speak on a panel until she was billed 960,000 roubles (S$17,262) for the privilege.

"I think I'm going to turn down this beautiful offer," Tatulova wrote on Facebook.

The state-backed organiser, Roscongress, says the price was coordinated with Russia's public health agency to limit attendance and reduce the risks of a Covid-19 outbreak.

After her story was picked up in local media, Tatulova wrote on Facebook Tuesday that she received a form allowing her to register for free without any explanation or apology.

While daily attendance won't exceed 5,000 people, no other nation is holding face-to-face events of this size since the pandemic began, St Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov boasted to a local radio station Monday, according to the state-run Tass news service.

The decision to hold the conference, intended as the Kremlin's answer to the World Economic Forum, came even as Russia has been among the worst-hit countries in the pandemic and as numbers of new infections are rising again. A campaign to persuade Russians to take one of three domestically-developed vaccines is foundering amid low take-up and public suspicion of the shots.

St Petersburg has averaged more than 800 new cases a day for the last two weeks and the city government is taking no chances that the forum becomes a super-spreader event, though it has set up special hospital wards for guests just in case.

A special "cold fog" process will be used at the conference centre as part of disinfection procedures during the forum, Beglov told the state-run RIA Novosti news service Tuesday.

Attendees must undergo Covid-19 testing before arrival at special centres in their hotels, the conference venue, and airports in Moscow and St Petersburg. Those attending the main panel with Putin must take another test by Thursday evening.

Participants formed long lines at one official testing centre in Moscow Tuesday to receive clearance to travel to St Petersburg. Organisers and sponsors also plan to continue the tradition of holding lavish parties and concerts at the forum.

Fontanka.ru, a local news website, said in April that more than 2,000 forum employees would receive Covid-19 inoculations. Even so, vaccinated people authorised to work in the sanitary zone set up to protect Putin would still have to quarantine for two weeks before the event, the site reported, citing an internal memo.

One deterrent to foreign guests is that many would face quarantine upon return from Russia, according to Alex Rodzianko, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow. Still, he said many top executives will come.

"Our members want to get a sense of the prevailing mood toward American business after diplomatic relations took a nosedive this year," Rodzianko said. "There's a lot of pent-up demand for meetings and travel, and people are tired of being afraid."