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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Borshch, Blini and Bodyguards, But No Bill Gates

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Some 300 people crowded into a hotel restaurant on Friday for borshch and the chance to hear Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych make his case for his country's membership in the European Union.

But EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga offered only lukewarm responses during a round of speeches that lasted for about two hours. The number of guests had dwindled to about 100 by the time the final speaker, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, stood up and waiters began serving cherry dumplings for dessert.

"I'm not sure why some challenge the sincerity of our European aims," Yanukovych told the luncheon, titled "Where is Ukraine Heading?" and hosted by powerful Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum.

The pro-Russian prime minister extolled Ukraine's democracy and economy, and said he had no desire to displace the pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko. He and Yushchenko work under an uneasy power-sharing agreement.

As for Ukraine's chances of joining the EU, Rehn offered an unenthusiastic "never say never."

Vike-Freiberga made no secret about her critical feelings toward Russia and Yanukovych, launching into a lively speech about the Soviet "occupation" of both Latvia and Ukraine. She said her country, now an EU member, had found its identity and urged Ukraine to do the same.

"Make up your mind. Make a commitment. Do it. We're with you. The Ukrainian people deserve much better than what they have," she said to laughter and applause from the guests, who included financier George Soros, French socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn and billionaires Viktor Vekselberg, Alexei Mordashov and Rinat Akhmetov.

If the entry barriers to Russia were as low as they were to the official Russian reception, the country would have no trouble attracting foreign investment.

The government threw a glitzy reception Thursday night that it billed as an exclusive opportunity to meet with top officials and business leaders. While Medvedev, Gref and Matviyenko did schmooze at the presumably invitation-only event at a Davos hotel, a few guests did not recognize them.

"I frankly thought this was the Microsoft party," said one, the founder and CEO of a California-based organization that promotes literacy in Third World countries. His friend, a New York financial manager, bobbed his head in agreement. "We were looking for Bill Gates," he said.

Across the crowded room, the chairman of a large firm based in Munich, Germany, sipped wine with his wife as they watched Russian waiting staff gently pat black caviar onto small blinis and pour ice-cold vodka. Metals billionaires Alexei Mordashov and Oleg Deripaska entertained small groups of businessmen at opposite ends of the room, while glamorous soprano Anna Netrebko sang in the center.

"I don't have any business in Russia," the chairman from Germany acknowledged to a reporter. "We didn't know that this was related to Russia. Do you know anyone here?"

The World Economic Forum is supposed to be a place where business leaders and politicians can have unrivaled access to one another. But organizers ran into some trouble conveying that three-decade tradition to the Russian delegation.

"Russian officials don't understand why they can't have their usual group of staff following them around," one Davos representative said.

She said organizers had repeatedly tried to explain that the forum was not a place for a retinue of associates, assistants, press secretaries and bodyguards, but the government officials still insisted on doing things their way.

At least the entourage problem this year was not as bad as when then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited Davos in the mid-1990s. "He flew in with a planeload of his entire supporting staff, including accountants and doctors," the representative said with a laugh.