The rich and powerful flock that arrives in Davos this year will not be forced to endure the icy winter air, but the snow is clear toward Russia, which has thrown some of the most famous shiny parties on the World Economic Forum.
The first in-person meeting in the Swiss Alps of the WEF in two years begins on Sunday, following the Covid-related disturbances. The gathering has also been delayed by the general schedule for late January, which means the snow is limited to peaks at once.
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The platform is different in other ways as well. Hanging on plates, speeches and evening souries is the reality of war hundreds of miles to the east. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has abruptly ended decades of Russian presence and influence in Davos.
Overall there is a more subdued tone, with the WEF participating in its third month with a clutch of Ukrainian officials trying to keep a global focus on their plight with the war. President Volodymyr Zelensky will deliver the keynote address (via video conference).
It will be the first WEF in Switzerland since the fall of communism, with no Russian official or business leader. Russian companies have been identified as strategic partners, an international affairs group that plays an important role in the calendar of events, costing 600,000 Swiss francs ($ 615,000) annually. Russia House – known for its chilled vodka – cannot even be established.
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This is a far cry from Moscow’s heyday in Davos, when the Russian-sponsored vodka and caviar-fueled parties were notorious for hosting large groups of young women without the recognition of being translators.
Putin’s war has imposed unprecedented restrictions on Russia, its political leadership, and its oligarchs and big companies. International organizations have collectively backed away from the country. Trade and investment vapor from Europe and the US with Russia.
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Granted billionaires are looking for a safe haven in various pockets of the world, jumping from one port to another in order to remain law-abiding. Suddenly anything “Russian” is banned.
WEF is no exception.
At the last meeting in Davos in 2020, Russian businessmen were the third best representatives by the billionaire count. But just three days after the Moscow invasion of Ukraine, their future in Davos began to decline, with WEF founder Klaus Schwab and President Borre making a statement condemning “Russian aggression, attacks and atrocities against Ukraine.”
This is in contrast to Russian treatment after Putin acquired Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s official presence in Davos declined, but its billionaires and business leaders did not downgrade their profiles.
Joining the Alps to enjoy Switzerland’s long-standing neutral policy in 2015, VTB President and Chief Executive Officer Andre Kostin said, “We have friends here. Ukrainian friends, European friends, American friends.
While some business relationships are hit by sanctions, “it doesn’t affect personal relationships,” frequent Davos attendant Costin said at the time.
Soiree threw that year at VTB Ski Resort’s InterContinental Hotel, where visitors were greeted by women wearing conical, gold-clad clothes with strips of neon-LED lights. Serenaded for caviar service and party-goers by guitarist Al De Meola, Russian crooner Leonid Agutin and Emir Kasturica and The No Smoking Orchestra.
Although the party did not match the extravagance of the events hosted by metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska (one was designed after the Russian log house), it drew a strong crowd, including Schwab. Although he usually avoids private events, he said during his attendance to show that “we welcome our Russian friends in Davos” and “after all, Russia is a very important European country.”
In the post-communist history of Russia, the WEF has played an important role.
The conference cemented its reputation as an essential event for the Russian elite in 1996 when a number of entrepreneurs mobilized their media resources and financial power to support Boris Yeltsin’s flagging re-election campaign known as the “Davos Agreement.”
The Russian delegation grew in size and visibility for nearly two decades, attracting heavyweights such as then-President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin’s prime minister in 2009.
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In 2011, the Russian investment bank called a “spectacular ice show” featuring figure-skating stars.
Russia was threatened with boycott in 2018 after the endorsement of US businessmen Victor Wexelberg, Deripaska and Kostin. Kremlin organizers said the plan to ban attendance had been withdrawn.
Putin addressed the Kovid era virtual forum last year, drawing on current international tensions and parallels in pre-1930 World War II. He used his speech to warn the world of the danger of “conflict” against everyone.
His attack on Ukraine has now brought conflict to the borders of the European Union, killing untold thousands and leaving millions of people fleeing their homes.
Some Russian businessmen have followed the Kremlin’s line, while others have sought to separate themselves from the president’s war.
Deripaska, Putin’s contacts added him to the list of sanctions, calling the war “insane” in late March. He warned the fight could continue “for several more years.”
It is not enough to invite him anywhere as soon as Davos. Meanwhile, many lunches, plates and evening events involving Ukrainian officials have been booked.
As for the Russia House, the plan is to rebrand it. The Victor Pinchuk Foundation, a philanthropic group named after its business supporters, intends to turn the site into a “Russian War Crimes House”, including a demonstration of war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.