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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Pete Economic Forum Takes On Soviet Look

ST. PETERSBURG -- It's being billed as the Russian Davos, but the atmosphere is decidedly more Communist Party Congress than exclusive Swiss ski resort.

Some 500 delegates from across Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the former Soviet bloc descended on the northern capital Wednesday for the opening day of the sixth annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum, the main theme of which is integration.

"The increased popularity of the forum is evidence of its growing importance for CIS countries because of the decisions that are made here, both on a political and corporate level," Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who is chairing the four-day forum, told the delegates in opening remarks.

Conspicuous by their absence were representatives of major Western businesses, with the notable exception (perhaps fittingly for an organization that was created to assist the Soviet bloc transition to capitalism) of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The EBRD, now the largest private investor in Russia, seized the opportunity in Vladimir Putin's hometown to announce bold new initiatives concerning an issue dear to the president's heart -- rebuilding St. Petersburg.

EBRD president Jean Lemierre said the bank would commit nearly half of the $1 billion it plans to make available for projects in Russia this year to St. Petersburg. He said between $400 million and $450 million will be available for various infrastructure projects, including a $215 million facility for the construction of a dam to protect the flood-prone city and about $150 million for building a highway around the city center. Some of the loans will be covered by government guarantees, according to the bank.

"We have been very committed to this city since 1994, when the EBRD held its annual meeting here," Lemierre told reporters, explaining the boost in financing. "Also, the government itself considers the development of St. Petersburg a priority, as it has always been a gateway to Europe."

The EBRD was also made a strategic partner in future forums, signing a cooperation agreement penned on the Russian side by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, who is also from St. Petersburg. The development was well received, as forum organizers have been searching for years for a partner to help promote it in the West and attract more Western investors.

One of the few delegates from the West in attendance, a representative of a large German bank, said of the EBRD's new role: "This is exactly what the forum needs to increase its status and to attract Western attention."

Most of the talk, however, focused on how to further integrate Russia's economy with those of its Soviet-era allies.

For Anatoly Chubais, a native Petersburger and the influential head of national power monopoly Unified Energy Systems, integration means creating a unified energy market within the CIS and eventually all of Europe.

Chubais said this was a logical conclusion to the reforms that began when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

"Ten years after we started, we see that all our basic reforms -- the introduction of private property, privatization and tight monetary policy -- are finally bringing results," Chubais said.

The forum, which ends Saturday, has already produced at least one deal that further integrates Russia with a former satellite: state-run nuclear engineering and manufacturing holding TVEL agreed to supply the Czech Republic with more than $200 million worth of nuclear fuel in 2002-06, part of which is to settle former Soviet debt to Prague.

For some, however, business isn't everything.

"There are so many beautiful girls in St. Petersburg that it is hard for me to concentrate on the forum," one of the guests complained.