Putin’s attack on Ukraine means rich Russians are no longer welcome in Davos

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J he wealthy and powerful crowd in Davos this year will not for once have to endure the freezing winter wind, but the coldness towards Russia, whose oligarchs have thrown some of the most famous parties at the World Economic Forum, will palpable.

The WEF’s first in-person meeting in the Swiss Alps in two years begins on Sunday after Covid-related disruptions. Even this rally has been delayed from the usual late January schedule, meaning the snow is confined to the peaks for once.

The forum is also different in other ways. Above the signs, speeches and evening parties hangs the reality of a war raging hundreds of miles to the east. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine brought an abrupt end to decades of Russian presence and influence in Davos.

There will likely be a more subdued tone overall, with the WEF featuring a group of Ukrainian officials seeking to keep global attention on their plight with the war in its third month. A keynote address (via videoconference) will be given by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

It will be the first WEF in Switzerland since the fall of communism without a single Russian manager or business leader. Russian companies have been rejected as strategic partners, a group of international companies that play a leading role in the calendar of events at a cost of 600,000 Swiss francs ($615,000) a year. Russia House, famous for its chilled vodka, will not even be installed.

It’s a far cry from the heyday of Moscow largesse in Davos, when Russian-sponsored vodka and caviar parties were known to host large groups of unaccredited young women who pretended to be translators.

Putin’s war saw unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia, from its political leaders to its oligarchs and its biggest corporations. International companies have massively withdrawn from the country. Europe’s and the United States’ trade and investment with Russia has evaporated.

Sanctioned billionaires have sought sanctuary in various pockets of the world, sending their huge yachts hopping from port to port to stay ahead of the law. Suddenly, anything “Russian” is considered taboo.

The WEF is no exception.

At the last meeting in Davos in 2020, Russian tycoons were the third best represented by the number of billionaires. But their future in Davos began to crumble just three days after Moscow attacked Ukraine, when WEF founder Klaus Schwab and President Borge Brende issued a statement condemning “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, attacks and atrocities”.

It’s a contrast to Russia’s treatment after Putin annexed Crimea to Ukraine in 2014. Even though Russia’s official presence in Davos has dwindled, its billionaires and business leaders have not downgraded their profiles.

An employee checks a bottle of champagne on the terrace of the bar at the InterContinental Hotel, Davos | Photo: Matthew Lloyd | Bloomberg picture

Heading to the Alps in droves to take advantage of Switzerland’s longstanding policy of neutrality in 2015, VTB chief executive Andrey Kostin said: “We have friends here. Ukrainian friends, European friends, American friends.

While some business relationships have been hit with sanctions, “it doesn’t affect personal relationships,” Davos regular Kostin said at the time.

That year, VTB hosted a party at the ski resort’s InterContinental Hotel, where visitors were greeted by women dressed in gold-speckled conical outfits with strips of LED neon lights wrapped around them. Caviar was served and revelers were rocked by guitarist Al Di Meola, Russian crooner Leonid Agutin, as well as Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra.

Although the party did not match the extravagance of events organized by metal magnate Oleg Deripaska over the years (one was modeled after a Russian log house), it did attract a large crowd, including Schwab. Although he generally avoids private events, he said at the time that he attended to show “our Russian friends that they are welcome in Davos” and that “after all, Russia is a country very important European”.

For Russia’s post-communist history, the WEF has played an important role.

The conference cemented its reputation as a pivotal event for Russia’s elite in 1996, when several tycoons agreed to pool their media resources and financial power to support Boris Yeltsin’s re-election campaign in what became known as the name “Davos Pact”.

The Russian delegation has grown in size and visibility for nearly two decades, attracting heavyweights like President Dmitry Medvedev and, in 2009, Putin during his tenure as prime minister.

In 2011, a Russian investment bank staged what it called a “spectacular ice show” presented by figure skating stars.

In 2018, Russia threatened to boycott after the United States sanctioned businessmen Viktor Vekselberg, Deripaska and Kostin. The Kremlin said organizers backed out of a plan to ban them from attending.

Putin addressed the stripped-down Covid-era virtual forum last year, drawing parallels between current international tensions and the 1930s on the eve of World War II. He used his speech to warn the world that he risked descending into an “all against all” conflict.

Today, its attack on Ukraine has sparked conflict on the borders of the European Union, killed thousands and seen millions flee their homes.

Some Russian tycoons toed the Kremlin line, while others sought to separate themselves from the president’s warmongering.

Deripaska, whose ties to Putin put him on sanctions lists, called the war “madness” in late March. He warned that the fighting could continue for “several years”.

That won’t be enough to get him invited again anywhere like Davos anytime soon. Meanwhile, several breakfasts, panels and parties featuring Ukrainian officials are sold out.

As for Russia House, the plan is to rename it. The Victor Pinchuk Foundation, a philanthropic group named after its financial magnate, intends to turn the site into a “House of Russian War Crimes”, including an exhibit on war crimes allegedly committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.- Bloomberg


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