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State Snubs London Forum

LONDON -- The Russian Economic Forum opened Sunday night without any government officials for the first time in years.

All government officials and several high-ranking businessmen pulled out of at the last minute amid speculation that the Kremlin had actively discouraged them from attending the London event.

Rosneft CEO Sergei Bogdanchikov, Vneshekonombank chairman Vladimir Dmitriyev, and Andrei Dvorkovich, economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin, were among the roughly dozen last-minute cancellations, forum spokesman Jonti Small said.

Speculation is swirling that the cancellations might be linked to strained ties between Britain and Russia and a desire by the Kremlin to put the spotlight on its own annual economic forum, which will be held in St. Petersburg in June.

"London is not exactly the flavor of the month" in Russia, Small said.

Forum organizers could not immediately say Sunday whether this was the first time no government officials had attended in the event's 10-year history.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the state was involved in the cancellations.

"It's out of the question, not a possibility, that any signal regarding participation or nonparticipation in the forum came from us," he said.

The two-day forum, which opened with a cocktail reception Sunday night, has gathered top Russian and foreign businessmen in London for a decade. But this year's event comes as relations between Russia and Britain have spiraled to a post-Cold War low.

Moscow this month renewed calls for London to extradite businessman Boris Berezovsky, who lives in self-imposed exile in the British capital, after he called for a revolution by force in a lengthy interview with The Guardian newspaper.

The poisoning death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, which Berezovsky and his dissident circle blame on Putin, also continues to cloud relations between the countries.

Buoyed by high oil prices and stable economic growth, the country has been aiming to shed the image it held when the forum first opened and it was still awash in shady privatizations and riding on the brink of an enormous default.

The office of President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff has been calling businesspeople at state and private companies and urging them to cancel, a source familiar with the matter said.

"They've been calling around saying it's not a good idea to go," the source said.

Peskov denied that and said most state officials were focused on preparing for Putin's final state-of-the-nation address, scheduled for Wednesday, while economic officials were preparing the nation's three-year budget.

"Some ministers really don't sleep at night, so it's very hard for them to leave Moscow right now," Peskov said.

Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Kirill Androsov and Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, also canceled plans to attend the event. "They'd confirmed -- we even have some of their speeches," said Small, the forum spokesman.

Other cancellations include Alfa Bank president Peter Aven, MDM Bank head Michel Perhirin and Leonid Mikhelson, CEO of Novatek, a gas producer in which Gazprom holds a 20 percent stake.

"Russian Economic Forum 2007 is rapidly becoming the conference that you don't want to be seen at," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank. "Whoever goes to the forum is on the outside.

"The London economic forum is a relic of the days when Russia was trying to entice investment, and that does not fit well with the Kremlin's view of the country today," he added.

Last week, a Gazprom spokesman said deputy CEO Alexander Medvedev had never intended to attend the event, despite forum promotional materials citing him as a participant.

Although Bogdanchikov will not attend, Rosneft CFO Peter O'Brien will present his speech, Small said.

Some high-profile names were due to keep their commitment to the London forum, including Alcoa CEO Alain Belda, ESN Group chairman Grigory Beryozkin, outspoken State Duma Deputy Alexander Lebedev, Shell Russia chief Chris Finlayson and Alistair Darling, British secretary of state for trade and industry.

Several thousand delegates and 150 speakers were expected to descend upon London for the forum.

Speculation that the Kremlin had discouraged businesspeople from attending the event comes as Putin continues to exert heavy state control over key sectors of the economy. Putin has also sought to reclaim Russia's place as a major power that has left the chaotic 1990s behind.

As an alternative to the Russian Economic Forum, the Kremlin has been trying to boost the profile of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, due to hold its 11th session from June 8 to 10 this year.

The Russian Economic Forum will wrap up on Tuesday after two days of themed sessions focusing on issues ranging from energy and foreign investment to construction and the domestic mortgage market.

(The Moscow Times 23.iv.07)

 
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