Sanctions-hit Kremlin to stage annual 'Russian Davos' bereft of financial elite

The St Petersburg International Economic Forum will look and feel very different this year. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Russia for years hosted world leaders and business titans at its annual economic forum in St Petersburg, but the "Russian Davos" will see little of the global financial elite this time around with Moscow isolated by sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.

This week, to make up for the lack of attendees personifying Western economic might and stardust, Russia is giving pride of place to smaller players or countries like China - the world's second largest economy - that have not joined in sanctions.

"Foreign investors are not only from the United States and European Union," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday (June 14), pointing to the Middle East and Asia. "Such investors and entrepreneurs are interested and will take an active part in the forum."

The Kremlin launched the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in 1994 to attract foreign investment, discuss economic policy and project an image that it was open for business after the demise of Soviet communist rule.

Russia long compared SPIEF with the World Economic Forum, the annual blue-ribbon event for global VIPs held in the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos to debate the world's problems.

Now, with Western leaders shunning dealings with Russia, longtime President Vladimir Putin will have no traditional meeting with political movers and shakers and corporate bigwigs from the United States and Europe.

There were no names of US and European companies or their CEOs on the published schedule for the June 15-18 SPIEF - reflecting fears of punishment under the most sweeping sanctions regime ever imposed on a major power.

Even companies that have hung on in Russia despite the general exodus of Western investors were not listed.

In one exception to the absence of Western figures, the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia along with French and Italian counterparts will speak at a session on Thursday called "Western Investors in Russia: New Reality."

Toxic relations

Russia's relations with the West have turned toxic since it sent armoured forces into Ukraine on Feb 24 in what it calls a"special military operation" to remove threats to its security.

Ukraine and its Western backers call Russia's actions an unprovoked invasion aimed at grabbing territory.

SPIEF will therefore look and feel very different this year. Having once rolled out the red carpet for the likes of then- German chancellor Angela Merkel, ex-IMF chief Christine Lagarde, Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein, Citi's Vikram Pandit and ExxonMobil's Rex Tillerson, Russia will give top billing this week to the presidents of allied states Kazakhstan and Armenia.

As foreign companies write down billions of their once promising Russian investments, domestic firms and banks are rushing to take over businesses left behind.

"Sanctions are for the long haul. Globalisation as it used to be has ended," Andrey Kostin, CEO of sanctioned bank VTB, Russia's second-largest, told RBC business daily. "The world will likely be strictly divided into 'us' and 'them' once again."

'New world'

In past years, SPIEF'S sessions would focus on investment-oriented topics such as privatisation by Moscow, initial public offerings (IPOs) and education abroad for Russians.

This year, SPIEF's official title is "New Opportunities in a New World".

Session topics include new possibilities for Russian economic growth, improving trade with the five non-Western BRICS powers and the future of Russia's sanctioned financial sector.

Another session - "A new form of international cooperation: how will payments be made?" - touches on Russia's ejection from the global SWIFT payment system and its move to circumvent the ban by demanding payments for gas exports in roubles.

It will have speakers from Russian allies Cuba and Venezuela as well as Turkey and Egypt, which have also eschewed sanctions.

There will even be a session on "fake news" - a panel attended by state media, the General Prosecutor's Office and the Foreign Ministry as Moscow pursues an information war with the West to shape perceptions of events in Ukraine.

"Everything has changed in the past half a year - from business-management schemes and investment priorities to the needs of people and problems that need to be solved," the summary of one SPIEF session read.

Other countries sending officials to attend or speak there via videolink include China, Belarus, Central African Republic, India, Iran, Nicaragua, Serbia and the United Arab Emirates.

According to Russian state TV, business figures from nearly 130 countries will take part despite sanctions.

Some forum participants asked that their employers' names not be printed on their personal badges, RBC reported, citing Rosgoncress, the state company that organises the forum.

"Money loves silence now as never before," said Denis Denisov, head of the Russian branch of international advisory firm EM. "People do not want to talk about their business under the spotlight of SPIEF or about anti-crisis measures they are taking because they fear personal sanctions...and the risk of direct and secondary sanctions against their businesses."

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