Frozen maybe, but not dead: the WEF leaves open the possibility of serving as a bridge between Russia and Ukraine once the active conflict is over.
The 800-pound gorilla of the elite world conference circuit has been walking a tightrope for decades when it comes to Russia: basking in the attention of the Kremlin while cowering on the antics of the oligarchs.
The founder of the Forum, Klaus Schwab, prides himself on opening his annual meeting in Davos to everyone, including through a personal relationship with Putin dating from the early 1990s.
Putin and his predecessor in the presidency, Dmitry Medvedev, addressed the WEF five times from 2007 to 2021. Putin was even invited to speak in January 2015, the day after the Russian invasion of Crimea, but he refused the invitation.
Introducing Putin to a virtual Davos rally in January 2021, Schwab called Putin’s voice “essential” in world affairs, echoing a 2009 comment that he couldn’t think of a single issue of importance. world that could be solved without the involvement of Russia. The couple last met in mid-2021, when Schwab told Putin of the “special importance” he attaches to Russian officials attending the Davos events.
Schwab, through a spokesperson, chose not to comment directly on his relationship with Putin.
But the tide has turned. Not only is the aspiration to Putin suddenly downgraded, but the WEF is now forced to comply with US, European and Swiss sanctions against Russia, which means not only cutting ties with Russian banks and oil companies, but juggling with the sensitivities of SWIFT, based in Belgium. international financial transfer company (a six-figure “partner” of the WEF), whose Russian entities are now prohibited.
SWIFT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The dancing bears
Even before Putin’s presidency, Davos loomed large in the minds of Russian elites. An invitation to the WEF was the ultimate seal of global legitimacy for post-Soviet business leaders – and a chance to shed their clout and their euros.
The tour de force of Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party, at the 1996 WEF annual meeting prompted Russian business leaders, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, to form the “Davos Pact” – a plan to finance Boris Yeltsin’s presidential campaign, then single-digit polls, to prevent the Communists from returning to power.
Throughout the 90s, Russians partied in Davos and the Russian delegation exploded. By the time Putin and Medvedev started talking on stage, it was common to find a dozen or more billionaire oligarchs in Davos.
Whether we miss them is an open question, but the absence of Russians from Europe’s highest city will certainly be noticed.
Oligarch parties in Davos were legendary and notorious.
In 2008, Olympic champion figure skaters performed under fireworks. In 2016, mining magnate Oleg Deripaska imported costumed Cossack dancers to perform for his guests, while models dressed as flight attendants visited a chalet with huge bowls of black caviar: served by the spoonful to guests via a spatula, followed by vodka chasers.
Guests at Deripaska’s parties ranged from American CEOs to members of the British House of Lords. Crowds of young women without accreditation badges from Davos – the city’s universal status system at WEF meetings – mixed in with the crowd, pretending to be translators.
In 2018, Deripaska’s party drew the ire of locals and its parties moved from residential areas to public places. He responded by organizing an Enrique Iglesias concert.
Between evening parties, the focal point of Russian activities was Russia House – an initiative of the Roscongress Foundation – which took pride of place on Davos Promenade.
More than 2,000 attendees from 85 countries took part in the site’s events in 2020, including billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio and a disgraced former United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Fabrizio Hochschild.
First Covid, then Kyiv
It has already been a difficult year for the WEF, with the pandemic forcing the organization through something of a crisis.
The WEF relied on its strategic partners, who pay over $640,000 to join the Forum’s most elite partnership tier. That group includes a number of Russian banks, which helped account for some 70% of its $340 million budget in 2021. But its inability to collect fees for holding in-person events, like its assembly annual in Davos, exploded. a $45 million hole in its budget.
With Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the Forum, headquartered in Switzerland, will have to pay an even larger check: the elimination of the Forum’s ties with its Russian stakeholders has been complete.
At least six Davos regulars are now subject to personal or organizational sanctions by Western governments.
Herman Gref – chief executive of Sberbank, which has been sanctioned by the US, UK and Canada – is no longer listed as a WEF board member.
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, sits on the WEF board and led efforts to eject Russian banks from SWIFT. A spokesperson for Freeland told POLITICO: “Canada will continue to work closely with our partners to sanction President Putin and his cronies for their unprovoked and barbaric invasion of Ukraine,” adding “we encourage organizations organizations to do all they can to support these efforts.
Lucrative strategic partnerships with Russian banks such as Sberbank, which became a WEF partner in 2008 and was a founding partner of the World Economic Forum’s Center for Cybersecurity, are on hold, WEF confirmed.
In the field of energy, the WEF’s partnerships with the conglomerate USM Holdings led by Alisher Usmanov — the sanctioned owner of Dilbar, the largest yacht in the world – and LUKOIL are on hold.
Neither USM nor LUKOIL responded to POLITICO’s request for comment.
According to an internal document obtained by POLITICO, sanctioned Russian CEOs registered to attend the WEF’s 2022 annual meeting in Davos – and who will now be banned – include Kirill Dmitriev (Russian Direct Investment Fund), Sergei Ivanov (former head of Putin’s cabinet, now in Alrosa), and Alexei Yakovitsky (from sanctioned bank VTB Capital). Other CEOs who will also be absent include Alexander Dyukov (Gazprom Neft), Ivan Streshinsky (USM investments), Aleksandr Shevelev (PAO Severstal) and Grigory Fedorishin (Novolipetsk Steel-NLMK).
Leonid Mikhelson, founder and chairman of natural gas producer Novatek and Russia’s richest man as of 2016, was also due to attend. Mikhelson has so far escaped sanctions but lost more than $10 billion in the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rustam Minnikhanov, president of Russia’s Tatarstan region, was the most prominent political figure to respond.
A Moscow branch of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution of the WEF, launched with fanfare in October 2021, recently disappeared on the WEF website. Hosted by ANO Digital Economy, the center focused on emerging technologies in the fields of artificial intelligence and the internet of things, and operated thanks to an agreement negotiated with the Kremlin and signed by the Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Russia is also eliminated. The Council was co-chaired by Maxim Oreshkin, Russia’s former economic development minister, now an adviser to Putin, and Igor Shuvalov, a former Russian cabinet member who currently chairs VEB.RF, the country’s financial development institution. , and subject to both UK and US sanctions.
Morality against rubles
This is not the first time the WEF has faced headwinds over its relationship with Russia.
When Congress authorized sweeping sanctions against Russia, in response to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US elections and the annexation of Crimea, the WEF sought to restrict oligarchs’ access to its Davos conference. in 2019. Under pressure from the Kremlin, this access was restored in time for the winter WEF gathering.
The thanks Schwab received: a no-show from Putin.
Andrey Kostin, chairman and chairman of VTB Bank, and one of the sanctioned oligarchs the WEF initially shunned, criticized the rally for “the lack of a meaningful discussion and the prominent list of no-shows.”
This time, the legal and moral pressure on the WEF has become too strong. Post-Soviet Russia and the World Economic Forum stood together: each desperately wanted to be seen as a great power.
The deal was relatively simple at first: Putin endorsed the WEF, the oligarchs funded it, and, in turn, the Forum helped whitewash their reputation. Call it multi-partnership, call it a transaction, call it the ugly truth of globalization. Like Klaus Schwab and Vladimir Putin, it was once the future. Now their only hope is peace.
Schwab and WEF President Børge Brende said in a February 27 statement that they “deeply condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, attacks and atrocities. Our full solidarity goes out to the Ukrainian people and to all those innocently suffering from this totally unacceptable war.
The couple then vowed to support all diplomatic efforts related to ending the war, while expressing hope that “reason will prevail and the space for bridge building and reconciliation will once again emerge”.
Andy Blatchford contributed to this report.