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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Have a Date at Davos Dance

Russia and the World Economic Forum have a storied past. It is where the future oligarchs put together the plan for getting an unhealthy Boris Yeltsin re-elected in 1996, and it is where a U.S. journalist first asked the question, "Who is Mr. Putin?" in 2000.

A club for Russia's political and business elite since the early 1990s, it saw one of its members, Oleg Deripaska of Siberian Aluminum, uninvited last year because of lawsuit filed against him.

But since then, Russia has moved into the West's good graces, and this year's annual meeting, which opens Thursday in New York, promises to give Russia a chance to show off its economic and political successes of the past year.

"We've always acted as a sounding board for Russia," Thierry Malleret, director of the World Economic Forum for Europe and Central Asia, said Monday by telephone from New York. "It is important that Russia could convey a message to the outside world, and we've always used this platform as a basis to push forward new initiatives and projects."

Malleret pointed specifically to the Corporate Governance Code for Russian companies, which was presented at last year's meeting.

The World Economic Forum's annual meeting, which had been held in Davos, Switzerland, every year since 1971 and usually is simply called "Davos," was moved to New York this year in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. For five days, under tight security, 2,700 world leaders from government, business, academia, religion, civil society and the media will discuss a variety of topics under the theme "Leadership in Fragile Times: A Vision for a Shared Future."

But Davos has always been known for its club atmosphere, and most of the interesting discussions and important deals have taken place at the many lunches, cocktail parties, receptions and private talks.

The Russian delegation will be headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who, according to Malleret, will make a key address.

"It reflects the interest of the World Economic Forum toward Russia, as such an opportunity to address all participants at once was granted only to a few persons," he said.

When asked at a news conference Tuesday in Moscow if he is planning to address the forum, Kasyanov did not answer and just shook his head. His speech is not in the official program, but Interfax, citing the government, reported that Kasyanov would speak at a plenary session on Sunday.

Organizers don't expect Russia to cause a political stir this year. "Probably there will be less politics this time, at least we have always been primarily a business forum. Also, this is how Kasyanov wants to put it this year," Malleret said.

Kasyanov said Tuesday he didn't expect the discussions at the forum to be easy. "My goal is to give the participants detailed information about what is going on in Russia and what the government's priorities are," he said at the news conference.

In addition to several private meetings, including one with World Bank president James Wolfensohn, Kasyanov is scheduled to have coffee with the editors of major Western publications and to meet with U.S. business leaders.

At the only session devoted specifically to Russia, on Friday evening, several prominent figures, including presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, Telecommunications Minister Leonid Reiman and State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, are to discuss the government's prospects for turning the renewed investor confidence into clear actions and results.

Some Russia-based foreign businessmen, including members of the Foreign Investment Advisory Committee and the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, said they plan to use the forum as an opportunity to discuss with top Russian officials the recent customs regulations that prohibit nonresidents from taking any currency out of Russia without a declaration or bank documentation.

For the 30 Russians listed as participants at the forum, and who paid up to $15,000 each for the privilege, Davos is the place to make new contacts and attract new investors.

"We hope that the forum will help our company attract new strategic investors and new partners," said Vladimir Yevtushenkov, chairman of the board at AFK Sistema. The holding company has stakes in more than 200 Russian companies with total market capitalization of roughly $2 billion. One of them, MobileTeleSystems, successfully placed its ADR on the New York Stock Exchange in 2000.

"Also, as a member of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, I think that we should use global experience more actively in the interests of the Russian economy. And the World Economic Forum is the right instrument for that," Yevtushenkov said Monday in an interview.

The heads of two Russian oil companies -- Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos and Simon Kukes of Tyumen Oil Co. -- are joining representatives from OPEC countries on a panel to discuss the "role of oil in the global recovery."

Among the representatives of Russian industry attending the forum is David Iakobachvili, chairman of the board of the Wimm-Bill-Dann food concern, which plans an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in February. Others are Sergei Nedoroslev, president of the Kaskol Group, and Alexei Mordashov, chairman and general director of Severstal.

"I am participating in the forum for the third year, and my primary goal is to maintain old contacts and to find out what the global business trends are," Mordashov said in an interview. "Davos is the best platform for communicating with people, and there is no difference where it is held, in Davos, Moscow or New York."

Vneshekonombank, Vneshtorgbank and Gazprombank will be the only Russian banks whose heads will be participating in the forum. This is a big change from several years ago, when almost every Russian banker considered it a must to be listed among the Davos participants.

Russia made its high-profile debut at Davos in 1993, when then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin attended for the first time. The early Yeltsin-era reformers were Davos celebrities, winning over Westerners with their liberal ideas.

In January 1996, as the presidential race was heating up, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov showed up at Davos and was well received by the Western business leaders. Worried by his success, Boris Berezovsky gathered other leading Russian businessmen at Davos, including Vladimir Gusinsky and Vladimir Potanin. They agreed to pool their resources to work for Yeltsin's re-election and put Anatoly Chubais in charge of the campaign. Handsomely rewarded for Yeltsin's victory, the oligarchs were born.

It was at the World Economic Forum in January 2000, less than a month after Yeltsin resigned and put Putin in the Kremlin, that Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer asked a panel of Russian politicians and businessmen the now famous question, "Who is Mr. Putin?"

As a sign of how far Russia has come since then, the World Economic Forum came to Moscow last October. Putin poured on the charm in his presentation before the gathering of 350 business leaders, leaving many of them clearly impressed with his plans for economic reform.