Economic Forum Opens in London

Some of the biggest names in Russian business have converged on London this week for the fifth annual Russian Economic Forum.

A premier event for winning clients, attracting foreign capital and showcasing investment opportunities, the forum kicked off with registration and welcome drinks Wednesday night, with 16 conference sessions to follow Thursday and Friday at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Center.

This year's forum is expected to attract even bigger names and more businesspeople and politicians than last year's gathering, which saw over 900 delegates and 65 speakers.

The program promises speakers including such luminaries as Royal Dutch/Shell chairman Philip Watts, Yukos' Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Tyumen Oil Co.'s Simon Kukes and MDM-Bank chairman Andrei Melnichenko, as well as Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, WTO director general Mike Moore, and EBRD president Jean Lemierre.

"This year's Russian Economic Forum comes at a time when Russia is once again 'flavor of the month' amongst international investors," said forum spokesman Simon Joseph. "There is political stability, domestic production and international trade are up, and there has been significant progress in tax and other legislative reform."

Sponsored by many of the participating companies, agencies and Western business associations in Russia, this year's event is to focus on issues that have grown more urgent since last year's forum. These include accession to the World Trade Organization, the restructuring of natural monopolies and Russia's role in the world oil price game.

While the forum aims to improve Russia's international image, Joseph said the pursuit of truth has always been among the organizers' objectives.

"Rather than put on an event that functions as a baseless 'flag-waving' exercise to push for foreign investment in Russia at any cost, we try to create an environment where participants can achieve a true understanding of the objective realities associated with doing business in Russia and where our Russian guests can learn more about how they and their country are perceived in the West," he said in an interview.

Organizers said they expect more of the kind of star appearances that in past years have riveted the public to an even greater extent than the many discussion topics vital for Russia's economy. For example, the appearance of oligarch-in-exile Boris Berezovsky caused a stir at the previous forum. Those who got the jitters by running into him should be aware that, according to some sources, he may be showing up again this year.

And given the list of speech makers, celebrity run-ins seem inevitable.