‘Party like a Russian’ turns toxic at Putin’s signature event

At least two leaders said they planned to leave early to avoid attending Putin’s speech.

Vladimir Putin’s annual economic forum in St. Petersburg has always been a hot ticket for Russian and foreign business moguls keen to curry favor with the Kremlin by hosting lavish parties or announcing major investments. His invasion of Ukraine made it a radioactive zone.

Many business leaders even fear being seen at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum this year, fearing it could make them targets for sanctions, three people familiar with the situation said, declining to be identified. because the question is sensitive. At least two leaders said they planned to leave early to avoid attending Putin’s speech at the event, which in recent years has been the high point for well-connected people.

Some asked the organizers, Roscongress, not to identify them on their badges during the SPIEF forum from June 15-18, the people said. Roscongress did not respond to requests for comment.

Even as Russia faces unprecedented international sanctions that threaten its deepest economic recession in decades, officials plan a business-as-usual approach to the 25th anniversary event under the slogan of “new opportunities in a new world.” “.

The confrontation with the West that has sometimes escalated into warnings of nuclear war is barely mentioned on the SPIEF website, although foreign visitors are urged to bring cash as sanctions mean Mastercard bank cards and Visa issued outside of Russia will not work there.

Russia used previous forums to ‘demonstrate the country’s success’ while business leaders could show they had ‘connections and money’, said Ekaterina Schulmann, political scientist and Academy member German Robert Bosch who moderated panel discussions at last year’s SPIEF. This year, “if the domestic participants don’t all want to demonstrate their participation, then the foreigners even more so,” said Schulmann, who has been called a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin.

Before the war, Russian tycoons and state-owned companies vied to outdo each other by flying artists like Sting and Robbie Williams, whose song “Party Like a Russian” captured the extravagant vibe of the SPIEF night scene. Most of the same tycoons and companies are now under US and European sanctions and few parties are planned this time.

Putin’s flagship event has once attracted global political figures such as French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This time he is hosting a representative of the Afghan Taliban, according to the Tass news service, the investment minister of Myanmar’s military government and the head of the central bank of Venezuela, all heavily sanctioned countries.

Officials from Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the Central African Republic are also present, as well as former Soviet republics. Even so, the number of foreign representatives is a fraction of those of previous SPIEFs.

Despite their governments’ sanctions against Russia, leaders of business organizations in Moscow representing France, Italy, Canada and the United States are listed by SPIEF organizers as participants. A spokeswoman for the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia confirmed her attendance.

Putin did not mention what he calls Russia’s “special military operation” in a greeting letter to attendees that blamed “mistakes of Western countries” for soaring global inflation, disruption of supply chains and food shortages.

But what he called the “difficult period” in the relationship is reflected in much of SPIEF’s program. The panels are dominated by Russian officials with few foreigners and cover topics such as protecting “national media sovereignty” and boosting consumer and business patriotism in import substitution efforts.

Some previously prominent SPIEF names are adopting a lower profile. Russia’s biggest lender, the state-run Sberbank PJSC, will not host its traditional party at the forum, two people familiar with it said.

Sanctioned billionaire Oleg Deripaska appeared to rule out his involvement, saying the matter had been “finally settled” in a June 8 Telegram post about cherry trees laden with fruit. “It’s time to harvest,” said Deripaska, who often spends time in her native farming region of Krasnodar in southern Russia.

One of the highlights of the program, according to SPIEF, is Gazprom head Alexey Miller, one of the few speakers at previous forums, who will take part in a session on the global gas market.

The high cost of the forum at 960,000 rubles ($16,600) per person is causing some to skip the event because it makes less business sense with many international companies no longer attending, executives of two large industrial companies.

“No senior executive from a foreign company will want to be photographed at SPIEF this year,” said Chris Weafer, managing director of Macro-Advisory Ltd. Russia’s travel restrictions are “a very convenient excuse for those who don’t want to attend and also don’t want to cut ties with the Kremlin.”

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