Medvedev to Go It Alone in St. Pete

MTThe Lenexpo exhibition center on Vasilyevsky Island being prepared Wednesday for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, slated to start Friday.
ST. PETERSBURG — This weekend's St. Petersburg International Economic Forum will be President Dmitry Medvedev's first major international appearance, while Prime Minister Putin, the headline attraction in recent years, will be nowhere to be seen.

The forum, which opens officially on Friday evening, is now in its 12th year but only shot to international prominence last year, when Russian businessmen and officials boycotted the London-based Russian Economic Forum.

Since then, the St. Petersburg get-together has emerged as the premier business event on the country's business calendar.

The forum will provide Medvedev with the opportunity to expound on plans to catapult Russia onto the list of the top five global economies by 2020,

The Economic Development Ministry has suggested that the total value of deals signed this year could surpass last year's $13.5 billion. Automobile manufacturing, infrastructure and technology are the most likely sectors to see new agreements struck.

"There will be at least 20 contracts signed and presentations of the projects made at the forum," said a ministry spokeswoman, who did not give her name in accordance with ministry policy. "The organizers are still calculating their value."

Lenexpo — the exhibition center on the city's Vasilyevsky Island that will play host to the event — was a hub of feverish activity Tuesday, with workers still installing walk-through metal detectors and television monitors in the main entrance hall. Most of the accreditation points were already manned.

More than 2,500 delegates are scheduled to attend the forum, among them members of more than 120 official delegations from around the world, including neighboring states, the European Union and the United States.

The forum will bring together some of Russia's best-known businessmen, including metals magnates Oleg Deripaska, Alexei Mordashov and Vladimir Lisin, as well as hundreds of foreign executives.

Medvedev will speak in the opening sessions of the conference Saturday morning, as might be expected, but the news that Putin will not be making the trip to the northern capital from Moscow comes as a surprise.

"Putin will not attend," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday. "But almost the whole government will be there, so that's enough."

On Friday and Saturday, Medvedev will meet with the leaders of the other 11 CIS states at an informal summit, where most of the attention will be focused on any exchanges with Ukrainian and Georgian leaders.

Russia's relations with Georgia, in particular, have become increasingly frosty lately, with Moscow and Tbilisi regularly engaging in exchanges over the status of Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"The toughest negotiations will be with Ukraine and Georgia," said Vladimir Zharikhin, the deputy director of the Institute of the CIS. "While all the guests from the post-Soviet space will be discussing their participation in Russia's ambitious economic plans until 2020."

CEOs from 75 foreign companies will have a chance to quiz Medvedev on Saturday evening in a closed roundtable, before meeting with First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina on Sunday.

Foreign energy sector representatives to meet with Medvedev will include BP's Tony Hayward, ExxonMobil's Rex Tillerson, and Total's Thierry Desmarest. Hans-Joerg Rudloff, chairman of Barclays Capital, will take part in the closed-door session, along with James Dimon of JP Morgan and Khalid Abdulla-Janahi of Bahrain's Ithmaar Bank. Jon Fredrik Baksaas of Norway's Telenor will also take part.

Those organizing the meeting between Medvedev and the executives said it would provide foreign businesspeople with an opportunity to get a better lay of the land following Medvedev's move to the Kremlin.

"With the change of government, it is very important to understand if things will change or stay the same," said Andre Schneider, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "This is a unique occasion for them to have a very private dialogue with key members of the government."

Many will be hanging on Medvedev's every word, as they look for signs of the government's commitment to increased global integration and cooperation with foreign investors.

"The key person at the forum will be Medvedev", said Roland Nash, head of research at Renaissance Capital. "His speech will outline what Russia's economic strategy will be and how Medvedev is going to interact with business"

Russian businessmen will also be looking for hints of continuity with the policies initiated while Putin was in the Kremlin.

"It's very important that we continue this dialogue between business, government and foreign investors," Troika Dialog CEO Ruben Vardanyan said Wednesday "It is good that this is happening so soon after the new president came to power."

But VimpelCom CEO Alexander Izosimov, who will attend, said Wednesday the forum would have to send the right messages to attract the kind of investment the country needs to help diversify its economy.

"The task is to break the stereotype of Russia as a country with cheap natural resources and an inexpensive work force, and to attract the world's attention to Russia's huge potential in the sphere of innovation and high-tech," Izosimov said.

Local authorities hope to play a key role in the event, with St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko to speak to the first session.

Alexei Sergeyev, head of the city's Economic Development, Industry Policy and Trade Committee, said the local authorities planned to sign six deals during the forum. Among those is a $426 million investment project planned by Sestra River Developments to build a business park.

"This is a very significant project for St. Petersburg," Sergeyev said, adding that the upcoming forum will outstrip the one the previous year in terms of prestige and content.

The forum coincides with a time of global economic turbulence, when Russia is seeking to portray itself as an island of stability, a slogan coined by Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin earlier this year.

But the country's investment image has long suffered from high-profile corporate battles and conflicts with government agencies, most recently at British-Russian venture TNK-BP, where the Russian shareholders have called for the removal of CEO Robert Dudley.

Analysts have speculated that the government is seeking to claim a controlling stake in the company via state-controlled Gazprom and that the Russian shareholders are acting on behalf of the state to persuade BP to give ground.

But in a battle that has been fought increasingly through the media, analysts said it would be an unusual chance for those involved to sit down and talk.

"The forum provides a unique opportunity for the participants in the TNK-BP conflict to speak to each other," said Renaissance Capital's Nash. "Medvedev, Gazprom management, BP CEO Tony Hayward and TNK-BP's Russian shareholders will all attend."