More Attendees, Less Splash at Davos

APDmitry Medvedev speaking at a World Economic Forum session last January as Gref, right, and Matviyenko listen.
A record number of Russian delegates will attend the World Economic Forum next week, but in sharp contrast to last year their dealings will be largely behind the scenes.

Fifty-one government officials, executives, analysts and journalists will represent Russia at the annual gathering of the world's most influential business leaders and politicians in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, which opens next Wednesday.

The Russians, however, are not looking for a place in the spotlight after last year, when their 47-member delegation was led by Dmitry Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister who is expected to win the presidential election in March.

The top government official this time is Alexei Kudrin, the deputy prime minister and finance minister. Only two other officials are scheduled to participate, Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina and her deputy, Kirill Androsov.

"It was an extraordinary year in 2007, but due to the elections, they cannot send the whole government again," said Christophe Weber, a World Economic Forum official who visited Moscow in the fall to extend invitations to government officials.

Kudrin and Nabiullina will have their work cut out for them, Weber said. "I can tell you they will have a tough week in Davos, both of them," he said Wednesday by telephone from Geneva. "They are going to be extremely busy because they have been extremely requested."

He said the forum had been flooded with requests from investors to arrange private meetings with the ministers.

Alexei Ivanchenko, a senior official in the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, confirmed that ministry officials were planning a flurry of one-on-one meetings with the heads of international companies as well as informal consultations with groups of foreign investors.

Last year's forum served as Medvedev's debut on the international stage, and he won over investors with his boyish smile, fluent English and -- most important -- strong words of support for their activities in Russia. Medvedev presided over a plenary session, while officials such as St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko and Gazprom deputy head Alexander Medvedev participated in smaller sessions. In addition, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry threw a glitzy reception with vodka and caviar-stuffed blini served to music by conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko.

Government officials and investors said at the time that Russia had expanded its role at Davos in an attempt to undo some of the damage done by a series of embarrassing disputes and missteps, including the shutoff of gas and oil exports amid pricing spats with Ukraine and Belarus. Foreign investors were also worried about the state's resurgence in the energy sector at their expense.

This year Gazprom does not have any officials signed up, but Alexander Medvedev will try to drop by, said his spokesman, Ilya Kochevrin. He said Medvedev had a prior commitment to attend the opening of a major gas hub in Austria on Jan. 25.

If Medvedev cannot make it, "we'll send someone I think, but not on the same level," Kochevrin said.

Business executives from state and private companies make up the bulk of Russia's delegation. Representing the state are Rosneft president Sergei Bogdanchikov, Unified Energy System head Anatoly Chubais and VTB chief Andrei Kostin and three of his top directors. Former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, a staple of past forums, will return in his new role as Sberbank CEO. The usual crowd of billionaires will also be present, including Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Yevtushenkov and David Yakobashvili.

VimpelCom CEO Alexander Izosimov said he and a team of four other company executives were going to Davos to look for ideas.

"For me personally and my team, I think Davos will be like every year -- an incredible source of inspiration and a very stimulating forum that allows you to cast your eye beyond the horizon to see what's coming," Izosimov said.

He said he did not have any specific message he intended to convey about doing business in Russia.

Jean Lemierre, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said he would balance praise for Russia's surging economy with a call for reforms to help the country weather global risks stemming from the U.S. subprime crisis.

"So far the impact on ... Russia has been relatively limited," Lemierre said. "But these risks cannot be ignored, and it is all the more important that the reform process accelerate."

He said he would also point current and potential investors to Russia's expanding consumer market. "Its requirements will continue to expand, in line with the rapid development of a middle class in Russia," he said. "It is the aspirations of this growing middle class that can be met by continued investment."

Pavel Teplukhin, president of Troika Dialog Asset Management, said Russia had not been a huge draw for investors at Davos in years past but that investors might take more notice now that Russia has showed itself to be "a safe haven" amid the subprime crisis.

"That's a very strong statement because fundamentally the Russian economy is pretty strong," Teplukhin said. "Russian risk or credit is of good quality. It is not necessarily reflected by the ratings agencies."

TNK-BP head Robert Dudley said he had always found strong interest in Russia at Davos and he planned to represent "our Russian business and also help represent the Russian business environment."

During the forum last year, TNK-BP was caught in a high-profile licensing dispute that investors feared was an attempt to pressure the company into handing control of the giant Kovykta gas field to Gazprom. Dudley said at the time that he was being deluged with questions from Davos participants wanting to hear his side of the story. The dispute ended after TNK-BP ceded control of the field to Gazprom over the summer.

Dudley said Wednesday that Davos would be a good place to discuss global economic trends that might affect TNK-BP and to meet with creditors. "We have a number of creditors globally, and Davos provides a good opportunity to meet with a variety of them very efficiently," he said.

Weber, the forum official, said opposition politicians had been invited to Davos but that none had replied. He declined to identify any of them. Kremlin critics who have made the trip in previous years have included Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, former State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov and former presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov.

From other Soviet republics, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev will attend again, while President Viktor Yushchenko will return after Ukraine was represented last year by then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

In all, more than 2,500 participants from 88 countries will convene in Davos for the five-day event, including 27 heads of state or government and 113 ministers, the forum said. Since last year, the World Economic Forum has also been working with the Kremlin on organizing the St. Petersburg International Forum, which is held in June.

Only 27 Russian participants showed up at Davos in 2006.

Russia's chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, predicted that many foreign investors would be thinking about Russia next week due to the presidential election, and he said he would assure them of stability in a Medvedev presidency.

"I was quite involved in getting Medvedev there [to Davos last year]," he said. "I think he gave a very good impression to foreign investors. ... He answered many questions that were on people's minds."

Lazar said he also would urge investors to think beyond their wallets. "We'll try to give our perspective and make sure business leaders are involved in more than just making money," he said.