VIPs Dancing Up a Storm at Sochi Forum

SOCHI A warm sun and lapping waves might be the perfect backdrop for striking a business deal, but as Russia was buffeted by a financial crisis, a storm whipping in off the Black Sea coast seemed to serve the purpose better.

As participants at the Sochi investment forum gingerly walked along the shore under umbrellas searching for a round table or food, both of which were hard to find, contracts worth almost $20 billion were signed.

Troika Dialog managing director Andrei Sharonov, who moderated the forums opening plenary session at Sochis Winter Theater, advised the audience to send text messages if they wanted to buy shares.

The forum regulations do not forbid that, he said, smiling.

The market has grown 20 percent, someone shouted from the stalls in reply.

The financial crisis appeared to be the reason for the absence from the forum of Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, who had both stayed in Moscow to man the fort.

German Gref, the former economic development and trade minister who now heads Sberbank, canceled a news conference after being called back to Moscow for an urgent meeting, a spokesman for the bank said.

A senior official from a North Caucasus republic, who asked not to be identified because he said he feared he wouldnt be invited again, complained that many of the potential investors from Moscow he had planned to meet at the forum didnt show up because of the financial crisis.

Those who came, however, seemed to have real fun celebrating the markets recovery on Friday.

While hundreds of the forums participants enjoyed cold shashlik and folk dancing at the more plebian of the forums main parties, top government officials and business leaders strutted their stuff on the glass dance floor at the VIP nightclub Platforma, where rock groups Uma Turman and Nautilus Pompilius performed their sets.

With the waves rolling in toward the platform where the club is located, the guests warmed themselves up with red blankets, mojitos and passionate dancing on the glass floor, which is suspended directly above the Black Sea.

Some VIPs eschewed the dance floor at the Thursday night party, however. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov remained at his table, deep in conversation for most of the evening with Norilsk Nickels new chief executive, former Federal Tourism Agency chief Vladimir Strzhalkovsky.

One of those who boogied on the dance floor Friday evening was Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, who danced up a storm to the wild strumming of a rock n roll violin.

Wimm-Bill-Dann chairman David Yakobashvili could also be spotted dancing in a corner of the dance floor, while ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, sporting a costume with white spangled trousers, was making her way closer to the stage, in a swirl of gyrating nonballet steps rather than her usual pirouettes.

While the VIP guests treated themselves to sushi and intricate gourmet canapes, parties were held all over the city as the rest of the 8,000 guests also needed to relax particularly after the stress of navigating what most agreed was an organizational nightmare.

With the Soviet-era sanatoriums in the city charging an average of $500 per night, some guests had to pitch up at out-of-town hotels 40 minutes drive away. That would have been the average traveling time without the monster traffic jams, which clogged Sochis streets from morning to night as police shut roads to give priority to VIP guests and their wailing blue lights.

The Zhemchuzhina Hotel, a decrepit Soviet-style building, charged 7,000 rubles (about $270) per night for a standard room, up from 3,800 rubles when the forum isnt in session, to 70,000 for a deluxe room, up from 47,000 rubles.

I have paid 4,000 euros for this trip, this is crazy, said Aykhan Zeytinoglu, CEO of the Turkish company Dedicated Horse Feed Manufacturers. Of that, 2,500 euros was a fee to attend the forum sessions. I dont understand what services they charged us so much for.

At least he was able to enter the forum. Hundreds of participants were left corralled between the forums sprawling grounds and the seafront as all traffic, both four-wheeled and two-legged, was prevented from entering while waiting for Prime Minister Vladimir Putins departure from the forum.

Police officers blocked the way as they prepared for Putins departure, without realizing that he was being shown models of future Olympic development projects.

Just wait 15 minutes, we cant let anyone through, police officers said as the throng of onlookers and impatient participants grew.

Two hours later, hundreds of people, including forum participants who complained of missing key meetings, stood under a soft drizzle as Putins car finally pulled away.

Staff writer Miriam Elder contributing to this report.