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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tight Security, Wild Nights, Jacked-Up Prices

ST. PETERSBURG -- They came. They struck billion-dollar deals. And they partied.

After the hard work of the forum was done each day, the 9,000 delegates were treated to nighttime cruise-liner parties and riverside serenades by a full symphony orchestra. Topping it all off was the midnight unveiling of a former military island with dancers, acrobats and fireworks.

"An event like this is successful only when it has a leader," said St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko at the forum's final news conference. "And that leader is German Gref."

Gref, the economic development and trade minister, complained of two stains on the forum's program, however. The first was former U.S. Vice President Al Gore crying off at the last minute, which forced organizers to call off Sunday's first plenary session, even though final schedules had already been printed.

"He did not even call me to explain himself," said Gref, who had personally invited some of the biggest names, including nine presidents and four prime ministers. "It is very disappointing for all the forum's participants."

The other glitch was the shortage of hotel rooms, which led the city's hotels to "jack up prices," Gref said. "I don't even want to say how much they cost, because it's just obscene."

Apart from the hotels, the city's roads were clogged the entire weekend, as whole neighborhoods were cordoned off for official events. Nonetheless, the response from local residents was overwhelmingly positive.

"You got all these brains converging on the place. You got all this money flowing in. I don't see anything wrong with that," said the owner of a grocery store near Lenexpo, the business center that hosted the forum.

An official poll found that 80 percent of the city's residents supported the event this year, Matviyenko said. On Friday, the Scorpions and one of the Bee Gees gave free performances near the city center, "to let the people feel like they're a part of this," she said.

Some 80,000 local residents came out for the shows.

Perhaps the most embarrassing logistical goof, given the recent Russia-Estonia memorial dispute, was the fact that the Estonian cruise ship hosting the nighttime parties had the word TALLINNK written across its hull in black letters 10 meters high. Hours before the guests arrived, forum staff covered the letters with a giant Coca-Cola banner, and the Estonian crew members were kept out of sight on the lower decks.

Gref's first thanks went to the event's security services, which allowed the forum to go on "without excesses, thank God."

Indeed, security was tight.

Thousands of law enforcement officers, mostly uniformed traffic cops, were on duty on the city's streets all weekend, with a truck full of OMON riot police posted outside most of the forum's events.

The 1,400 members of the press were herded about in small groups by sometimes catty chaperones.

"Don't leave my side," one of them told her gaggle of reporters. "If you are seen walking around alone in the conference center, you will be taken for an outsider or a spy, and appropriate actions will be taken."

Things were not much more relaxed during the late-night parties on the deck of the Estonian liner. About one-fifth of the male guests on the upper deck Friday were grim, dark-suited men, who scrutinized the other guests from the back of the room. The watchers stayed stone cold sober until the parties wound down at about 3 a.m.

Asked whether he was with any of the state security services, the largest and most sullen of them said, "I'm here by myself." He was seen in a security detail the next day.

The heavy security appeared to affect one of the forum's speakers, Yevroset CEO Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who took a swipe at regulators and security firms in general in his speech Saturday, saying, "Several million adult men are effectively engaged in the industry of distrust."

About half of the female guests on the cruise liner Friday night appeared to have no visible connection to the forum, except that they were escorting foreign delegates. "What forum?" one of them said.

Rumors circled about secret VIP parties around the city for the more distinguished guests, and the highest-profile personage seen at Friday's party was billionaire Rustam Tariko, the head of the vodka-and-banking conglomerate Russky Standart.

Just in case the bar ran dry, he brought with him a bottle of his own vodka, even though a dozen uniformed waitresses stood about, carrying laden trays of the stuff.

After the forum's final news conference Sunday, Gref and Matviyenko rushed off to a gala dinner on the banks of the Neva River that featured the entire orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, 12 grand pianos, a fireworks display, a performance by teen pop trio Serebro and an open bar made entirely of ice.

Gref held court with Matviyenko at the top table, and got up to dance, albeit stiffly, with award-winning singer Larissa Lusta.

About 1,000 guests, including most of the forum's speakers and panelists, were in attendance. Gentlemen in shiny suits gave 1,000 ruble tips to the waiters, and young women emerged in pairs from bathroom stalls with men who seemed to have the sniffles.

Along with their sea scallops, crab legs and whiskey, some of the Japanese guests enjoyed the company of Russian girls who hung on their arms and laughed a lot, without having a language in common.

Following the dinner, guests were shuttled to the unveiling of New Holland Island, where they listened again to the Mariinsky Orchestra. They then watched a synchronized boat show in the canal as about 100 dancers and acrobats cavorted around and swung from the rafters in white, 19th-century outfits.

The island, which will be turned into a "multicultural and business center," was opened to the public for the first time on Sunday after 285 years as a military base. "There is no doubt that St. Petersburg is the most beautiful city in the world," First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told guests in a 1 a.m. welcome speech. "This is the greatest event for our city, and probably for the entire world."

Staff Writer Anna Smolchenko contributed to this report.