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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin to Be Quizzed by Affable CEOs

President Vladimir Putin will face pointed questions about government policy and the image he is trying to project for Russia when he sits down with foreign business leaders Saturday at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

But the invitation-only audience of 100 CEOs from more than 20 countries will be far from hostile during the 90-minute roundtable Saturday evening. Putin will find that they are enthusiastic about the opportunities available in Russia and eager to invest billions of dollars.

"We would like to explore what Russia has to offer," said Aly Aziz, chairman and CEO of Dashwood Group, a London-based investment company looking to invest $1 billion in Russia. "I remember that there was great potential in the sugar industry. We would be looking [to see] if such a possibility still exists."

Dashwood, which operates mainly in Southeast Asia and Latin America, specializes in agro-industrial and renewable energy projects.

Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of advertising giant WPP, said he would like to ask Putin what kind of brand image he wanted to give Russia and to market around the world.

Sorrell, whose company earned $100 million in Russia last year, would not say what answer he hoped to hear from Putin: "I would leave it to him as we do with all our clients. We are just implementing it."

Echoing several other business leaders, Sorrell said he also hoped to learn more about the Russian market and the government's policies.

Putin and other government officials are eager to clear up any misconceptions among the 6,000 guests expected to attend the 11th annual St. Petersburg forum, which started Friday afternoon and runs through Sunday.

"We really want to show a different Russia and not the Russia shown on television or written about in stories, which are often subjective," said Kirill Androsov, deputy economic development and trade minister. "It's better to see once than to hear a hundred times, as the Russian saying goes."

Androsov promised that investors would have easy access to government officials.

"True, the officials may promise whatever they please," he said. "But the most important thing is trust, and I believe the government in the past eight years has given [investors] enough reason to trust it."

Investors' nerves have been on edge in recent months as the state has taken steps to re-exert control over oil and gas and other so-called strategic sectors.

TNK-BP risks losing control of its giant Kovykta gas field amid an ongoing dispute that is widely seen as an attempt by Gazprom to dominate the project.

In December, a Royal Dutch Shell-led consortium sold a major stake in Sakhalin-2 to Gazprom after months of pressure from environmental inspectors, who threatened to shut down the $20 billion oil and gas project by revoking key permits.

Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer, who signed off on the sale during Moscow talks with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, planned to give a speech at the forum that shows Shell harbors no hard feelings about the matter. Van der Veer was to praise partnerships with Russian companies as a universally accepted way of sharing risk, and to stress that Russia needed Western investment and know-how to develop its vast energy resources.

Miller, however, will miss Van der Veer's remarks and the forum. He was hospitalized with a kidney ailment last week.

Among the many government officials expected to show up are First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, who will speak at separate panels Sunday: Ivanov at one on energy and Medvedev at another on diversifying the economy.

The two ministers are seen as leading candidates to replace Putin as president next year.

The meeting between Putin and the foreign CEOs will be chaired by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, which organizes the Davos summit of world business and political leaders every January.

Schwab hopes for a frank discussion that will promote cooperation, said Matthias L?fkens, spokesman for the World Economic Forum.

"A key outcome will be to know where Russia is heading," L?fkens said.

During the forum, a dozen agreements worth $3.3 billion are to be signed with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the New York Mercantile Exchange, Samsung, Suzuki, the United Aircraft Construction Corporation and Volvo, among others.

On the sidelines of the forum, Putin will meet with the leaders of other former Soviet republics for an informal CIS summit.

At least one foreign executive was looking forward to informal talks even more than the official part of the program.

"The unexpected meeting is usually the most interesting," said Per Olof Sjostedt, TeliaSonera's senior vice president for Russia, explaining that planned meetings were often "short and noisy and not always terribly productive."

Sjostedt's Swedish-based company owns 43 percent of MegaFon, Russia's No. 3 mobile operator, which has been making headlines because of a fierce battle for control of a blocking stake claimed by two investment companies. Sjostedt, a MegaFon board member, said he could not comment on the ownership dispute but that it had minimal impact on the company's operations.

He said MegaFon contributed about 10 percent to TeliaSonera's 2006 profit of almost $3 billion.

Asked about corruption, a worry for many foreign investors, Sjostedt said it had never been an issue for him in Russia.

"I can say honestly that the telecoms sector is pretty straightforward," he said. The relatively low prices for mobile calls were proof "that competition works" in this sector, he said.

Several recent surveys have warned of a significant growth in corruption under Putin.

Sorrell, the WPP CEO, said that while corruption was a problem for him and his 2,000 employees in Russia, "we are coming to grips on it."

Staff Writer Anna Smolchenko contributed to this report.