A Forum of Drinks, Magic and a Flying Pig

ST. PETERSBURG — If BMW was the official car and Gazprom the official sponsor, then maybe a flying pig should have been the official metaphor for the 12th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

As the cracked voice of Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters rang out at Friday's packed opening concert on Palace Square, a 10-meter-long inflatable pig rose up over the Hermitage and soared off across the city's center.

But flying pigs were not the only unlikely sight at this year's relaxed forum, as the home of the proletarian revolution played host to business leaders from around the world — and their lavish parties.

Beyond the conference halls, as the Neva River flowed by, the champagne, vodka, whiskey and cocktails flowed into ministers and businessmen.

At an alcohol-heavy party thrown by St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko on the grounds of Mikhailovsky Castle on Saturday evening, a pony-tailed Italian conjuror entertained a group of current and former ministers eating shashlik and drinking wine around a fully laden table.

Elvira Nabiullina, German Gref and Igor Levitin giggled as the conjuror made Sergei Ivanov's Visa credit card disappear and Viktor Zubkov's vodka reappear and then stubbed out a cigarette in the jacket of a bystander.

"They were a great audience," Milanese magician Arduino Miscioscia, 42, whose stage name is Eddy, said in Italian afterward.

But having performed for Vladimir Putin in Sochi and a number of times for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Miscioscia was not overwhelmed.

"Except for the governor, I didn't know which minister was which. The one in the glasses was really getting into it," Miscioscia said.

Confusingly, though, Matviyenko, Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov, First Deputy Prime Minister Zubkov, Economic Development Minister Nabiullina and Sberbank chief Gref were all wearing glasses around the table.

The Italian prestidigitator was not the only one getting confused. As President Dmitry Medvedev strode out to deliver a speech at the Global Energy Prize ceremony, the announcer accidentally began introducing him as his predecessor, Putin.

"The president of Russia, Vladi — Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev," the announcer said.

Medvedev seemed to notice the mistake. Entering the auditorium, he smiled widely and gave a wink. But he did not mention it at the podium.

At Mikhailovsky Castle, the garden resembled a 19th-century party, with doves in gilded cages hanging from trees, paintings reproduced on huge panels standing in the grass, and singing metal butterflies on 3-meter metal sticks, flapping their wings and making melodious sounds.

A female choir in black sang in the middle of a pond, their faces lit with electric candles. The main stage featured classical music ensembles, fire dancers, folk groups and jazzman Igor Butman.

But the night air was chilly, so guests preferred to sit in warm tents, drinking mojitos and white wine and eating shashlik.

"Apparently, Roman Abramovich was meant to come to the party," said one of the catering staff, as she stood in line to use a stinking portable toilet in the garden. "But I can't imagine him using one of these."

Abramovich, it seemed, was elsewhere. The Chelsea owner had moored his sparkling 115-meter yacht Pelorus on the Neva at the exact point where the battle cruiser Aurora had signaled the start of Lenin's Revolution, avoiding the headache of having to find a hotel room in the city.

In fact, no big businessmen attended the castle party, leaving the guests staring at the table occupied by Matviyenko and her VIP guests.

Not everyone was pleased to see the famous faces. "I went up to Matviyenko and gave her my business card, but she just asked her bodyguards to take me away. She was very bitchy," said Lev Smirnov, 65, a former sailor and port manager, who did not answer a query about why he was attending the forum.

Matviyenko, who splashed out 716 million rubles ($31 million) on organizing the weekend forum, visibly enjoyed the party. Wearing 12-centimeter heels and white suit with glitter, she chatted nonstop, mainly with Gref, and sipped white wine.

The menu included three kinds of shashlik, about 10 kinds of cheese, a variety of salads, fruits and vegetables, and seven kinds of ice cream.

Nabiullina drank only water, nibbled on the appetizers, and left early. Her counterparts, however, stayed for the main meat course and the rich ice cream.

Among the guests were the chief representative of the European Commission in Russia, Marc Franco, executives from HSBC and Goldman Sachs, British diplomats, retro music star Valery Syutkin and showman Nikolai Fomenko.

"Do you know what happens at midnight? There will be a duel between Tony Hayward and some of the TNK-BP Russian shareholders at the Palace Square," one British guest joked.

He said he knew little about negotiations over a dispute between TNK-BP's British and Russian owners. BP chief Hayward was in St. Petersburg, and BP's conference room at the forum was occupied throughout the weekend.

Some businesspeople, meanwhile, tried on new hats at the forum. Oleg Deripaska, Russia's richest man with a fortune estimated at $28.6 billion by Forbes magazine, made a report at a session on climate change, chaired by well-known scientist Sergei Kapitsa.

"What caused global warming is unclear, but the only practical solution to it, in my view, is the development of nuclear energy," Deripaska said.

"We need to develop an international nuclear waste treatment and storage system and unify the standards for building the reactors," he said, adding that he "personally believed in small reactors with a capacity of less than 50 megawatts."

At another session, Mirax Group CEO Sergei Polonsky, Russia's youngest billionaire at 35 and worth an estimated $4.35 billion, expressed outrage at what he called inflated prices at St. Petersburg hotels.

"I tried to stay in the Grand Hotel Europe, and they sent me a bill of 571,000 rubles [$24,300] for three nights," Polonsky said, pausing as Yevroset owner Yevgeny Chichvarkin helped him unfurl a 3-square-meter poster of the bill.

"I stayed at a friend's apartment," Polonsky said. "Forget about the Grand Hotel Europe."

After complaints last year about overly tight security, reporters were granted access this time to almost all events associated with the forum.

Inside a cavernous pavilion at the Lenexpo exhibition center, where many businesses set up stands, billionaire Viktor Vekselberg chatted with UES chief Anatoly Chubais, billionaire Oleg Deripaska bent the ear of First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov did his best to avoid saying anything meaningful to the press.

"Of course, we all know each other well, but life moves quickly and it's difficult to catch up," said Chichvarkin, dressed in an unusually sober light-gray suit and red converse trainers.

"In 10 minutes here you can solve problems that it takes months to solve with e-mails and faxes," Chichvarkin said.

At the Gazprom stand, excited executives posed for photographs with the UEFA Cup, won recently by Gazprom-sponsored local team Zenit St. Petersburg, grinning like children as they walked away.

"The cultural program is a good one this year. St. Petersburg has a rich cultural history, and this is being shown off," said Mariinsky director Valery Gergiyev, watching a giant screen showing the French Open tennis final.

"I think that Russian businessmen are getting more cultured," Gergiyev said with a wry smile. A few minutes later, he hugged Gazprom head Alexei Miller warmly in greeting before accompanying him into the bathroom.

Although most participants had warm words for the forum's organization, there were some complaints. As leading global economists discussed international food prices at some sessions, delegates and journalists suffered a food crisis of their own. Lines for the buffet lasted almost an hour.

But with the noisy parties sometimes seeming more important than the formal discussions, delegates who wanted an explanation about the St. Petersburg forum might have gotten an answer by listening carefully to Pink Floyd's Waters.

"And did they tell you the name of the game, boy? They call it riding the gravy train," the British rocker sang.