Crisis-Time Forum Comes Up Wet and Cheap

RIA-NovostiPhilippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Medvedev and Rusnano chief Anatoly Chubais at a forum exhibit.��
ST. PETERSBURG -- It was perhaps fitting that the headlining musical act for the St. Petersburg economic forum was Duran Duran, a band whose best-remembered single is the 1982 hit "Hungry Like the Wolf."

While the state splurged on lavish yacht parties and singing metal butterflies at previous forums, this year's event took place in the middle of the worst recession the world has seen in decades. To make matters worse, the temperature plunged as low as 5 degrees Celsius and rain fell almost sideways at times, driven by a chill wind blowing in from the Gulf of Finland.

President Dmitry Medvedev did not miss the chance to make the connection between the weather and the crisis.

"This year, unfortunately, the weather let us down," Medvedev said in his opening speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. "But maybe this weather corresponds to the economic mood. Hopefully, during the course of the forum the rain will end, the wind will die down and the sun will shine brighter than it does this morning."

St. Petersburg Deputy Governor Mikhail Oseyevsky said the city had cut its spending on the forum by 20 percent this year and, indeed, a noticeable frugality could be seen in the unchanging menu at the buffet and a toned-down reception thrown by Governor Valentina Matviyenko. Even Medvedev looked slightly rumpled as he delivered his opening address with his tie knot askew.

Some participants were thriftier as well.

"I stayed at a friend's house this year," said Mirax CEO Sergei Polonsky, who last year expressed outrage about being presented with a bill for 571,000 rubles (then worth $24,000) for a three-night stay at the Grand Hotel Europe.

Last year, Polonsky and former Yevroset chief Yevgeny Chichvarkin unfurled a three-square-meter reproduction of the bill on stage at the forum to protest what they called price gouging by St. Petersburg hotels.

"Matviyenko did a great job of getting that stuff under control," Polonsky said.

Polonsky, 36, who last year was Russia's youngest billionaire, has seen his net worth plummet as Mirax Group remains mired in expensive building projects in a real estate sector paralyzed by tightening credit and illiquidity.

He looked downright lucky, however, compared to Chichvarkin, who fled the country in December amid allegations of kidnapping, smuggling and extortion.

Another businessman who had a run-in with the authorities -- Mechel CEO Igor Zyuzin, who Prime Minister Vladimir Putin infamously threatened to "send a doctor to" when he cited poor health as a reason to skip a meeting last July -- was reminded of the incident by Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, at a panel on Russia-U.S. business ties on Thursday.

When Zyuzin said Mechel had tens of thousands of shareholders in the United States, Shokhin replied, "You can't send a doctor to tens of thousands of shareholders." Zyuzin burst out laughing.

One thing that organizers did not skimp on was security. Hordes of law enforcement officers in bat-like raincoats lined city streets, directing traffic, manning barricades or simply crowding under any available awning to get out of the rain.

Local residents were divided about the forum, with some griping about snarled traffic and others voicing hope that the event would lead to a solution for their economic woes.

"Look, there they are again," complained Gassan Kerimov, a gypsy cab driver, as he steered his Zhiguli around yet another police barricade. "The whole city gets clogged, and it's impossible to get anywhere."

He said gypsy cab drivers didn't reap much benefit from the 3,500 delegates that attended the event.

"That's what they ride in," Kerimov said, peering through his cracked windshield at a sleek, black Mercedes.

Tatyana, a bartender at the Tribunal bar on the main Nevsky Prospekt, was more optimistic. "I hope they think of something good over there," she said. "Life here has gotten very tough lately."

The country's elite might have been thinking the same thing as they sat at the governor's reception, held Friday in a huge white pavilion next to the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island.

Gone were the doves in gilded cages, the singing metal butterflies and a choir in the middle of a lake that were all featured in last year's over-the-top party in the garden of the Mikhailovsky Castle. Instead, several flame jugglers and jazzman Igor Butman -- the lone holdover from last year's reception -- were the only entertainment.

But that didn't keep away top businessmen, some of whom skipped Matviyenko's party in 2008. Among the guests were billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, Mechel's Zyuzin and acting RusHydro CEO Vasily Zubakin.

Government figures -- who attended last year's celebration in force -- were notably absent, with the exception of Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina, the forum's organizer. A group of a dozen governors seated around a central table seemed happy enough, though, toasting one another and laughing uproariously.

Security was higher than last year, with guests needing to pass through a metal detector and three checkpoints before arriving at the party. The measure might have been an attempt to save on food because portions were strictly limited, unlike last year's buffet, which featured an endless supply of shashlik, lobsters and virtually every type of champagne, wine and cocktail.

The menu this year consisted of cold peppered chicken, a dearth of cocktails and plenty of rain and cold.

"I can't eat this food, it's all terrible," said a guest who was on his way to the exit.

Many of other guests soon followed suit, along with Matviyenko, who also made an early exit.

But the forum ended with a clear-blue sky Saturday afternoon, prompting some participants to wonder whether Medvedev's other hopes for a better economy would also come true.

Anatoly Medetsky contributed to this report.