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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Business Reluctant to Voice Concerns

However anxious they are to find out, the country's richest tycoons said Wednesday that they would not ask President Vladimir Putin who would be in the new Cabinet, nor would they quiz him about any structural shake-ups in the government.

Their meeting with Putin, during an investment forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, is scheduled for Friday, the day a new Cabinet may be announced.

"We are concerned about the structure" of the government, LUKoil chief executive Vagit Alekperov said after a board meeting of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or RSPP, which discussed Friday's meeting. But "today it is outside the area of competence of big business," he said.

The country's top tycoons, Alekperov added, could share their recommendations but largely did not have a say in how things are run in the government these days.

He declined to say whom he wanted to see in the next Cabinet, saying merely, "My wish is to see worthy people."

The relative paucity of dialogue between the RSPP and the president is a far cry from the situation under the late President Boris Yeltsin, when the group, known informally as "the oligarchs' trade union," would routinely advise the Kremlin on anything from tax rates to the choice of a new prime minister.

Alekperov said the theme for Friday's meeting with Putin -- investing in southern Russia -- was fixed, and there were no plans to change it.

David Yakobashvili, chairman of dairy giant Wimm-Bill-Dann, said he did not plan to ask Putin about the government reshuffle, which was triggered last week by the resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. "It's none of my business. My issue is cows and milk," Yakobashvili said, smiling.

Alekperov, Yakobashvili, Unified Energy System CEO Anatoly Chubais, Severstal CEO Alexei Mordashov, Alfa Group majority owner Mikhail Fridman and other RSPP board members spent more than an hour in a closed-door meeting Wednesday, which also included discussion of energy-saving and corporate electronic purchase systems. No details of the discussion about Friday's meeting were released, and most board members left without talking to reporters.

One who did, RSPP president Alexander Shokhin, said the board members had not discussed any "fateful matters," or their activities over the next four years. Like Alekperov, Shokhin, who briefly served as a deputy prime minister under Yeltsin in 1998, declined to speculate about the Cabinet reshuffle. "I refused to comment on personnel appointments in the current political cycle," Shokhin said, but he added that big business was anxiously awaiting the formation of the new government "to see our new dialogue partners."

Government officials and analysts have said it is hard to make any predictions about changes in a system where the final say rests with one person and a dialogue between the president on one side and society and business on the other is largely absent. During Putin's rule, the balance of power between the state and the oligarchs has dramatically shifted, as the RSPP has gone from setting the agenda to obediently following the Kremlin's lead.

Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky served on the RSPP board until his arrest in October 2003. Since his downfall, the RSPP has become an altogether tamer body, faithfully following Putin's policy agenda on everything from economic diversification to investing in the North Caucasus.

The downfall of billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev, who in July stepped down as head of Russneft and fled the country after what he described as state pressure, has been cited as evidence that the Yukos affair was not an isolated case.

Analysts said that by avoiding unnecessary or uncomfortable questions, the tycoons were just following the rules of the game.

Ben Carey, co-head of Russia and CIS markets research at CA IB Corporate Finance, a unit of Bank Austria Creditanstalt, said it "did not make business sense" to criticize Putin. "As long as the authorities are not preventing companies from fulfilling their primary goal of making money, they have no reason to ask any questions," Carey said.

The format of Friday's meeting was not yet clear, Shokhin said. Originally, RSPP members were going to report on investments in southern Russia, but Chinese firms were later invited to come and talk to Putin on economic policy, Shokhin said. Shokhin said the RSPP would wait for political parties to announce their lists of candidates for the State Duma elections to get an idea of their next steps. The tycoons would like to meet later with Putin, but only when a theme for the meeting was clear, he said.

Putin has promised there will be continuity in economic policy, Shokhin said.

At least one high-ranking RSPP member will not make it to the investment forum in Sochi. Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, who was hospitalized this summer with a kidney ailment, had not planned to attend the meeting, a company spokesman said Wednesday.