Russian push to lure western attendees to St Petersburg forum stalls


Russia’s flagship economic forum in St Petersburg has named former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt as a participant at this year’s event in a draft programme that is disputed by many of the supposed attendees.

Several people listed on the document, dated Tuesday and seen by the Financial Times, said they did not plan to attend, an indication the Kremlin’s brand remains toxic after the Ukraine invasion despite its desire to revive ties with global business leaders.

Schmidt, the most prominent among a sparse list of western speakers, has not received an invitation and does not plan to go, said a person familiar with the matter.

Other western speakers listed on the programme, including Lucid Motors chief executive Peter Rawlinson and Stanford professor Ilya Strebulaev, said they would not attend.

The lack of confirmed western names less than a month before the forum, which was set up by President Vladimir Putin as a showcase to attract foreign investment, points to the Kremlin’s struggles in finding people to hobnob with its elite.

Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the St Petersburg forum was a glitzy platform where western leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron appeared alongside Putin. State-run companies would wine and dine western investors at lavish parties in Russia’s palatial, neoclassical former capital.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, and the Kremlin-run foundation that organises the forum did not respond to requests for comment.

Last month, Peskov said several businessmen from western countries were “very interested” in attending but claimed that “even if they are going, we can’t talk about them, because if we say anything, they will just be eaten alive”.

The forum’s guest list is dominated by dignitaries from countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India and China, all of which have deepened their trade relationships with Russia despite western sanctions and have not condemned Putin for the invasion.

Russia has said the UAE will be a featured guest at the forum, which is scheduled for June 14-17, but has not announced whether any foreign leaders will appear at its keynote panel alongside Putin.

The programme does not list any foreign officials ranking higher than ministerial level, even from countries Russia deems “friendly”, except for the first lady of Burundi. Kazakhstan and Armenia sent their presidents last year and the Central African Republic, a close Russian ally, sent its prime minister.

Some of the other named western speakers have long held strong pro-Russian views, such as former Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl, who danced with Putin at her wedding, and confirmed she planned to attend.

Some of the panels point to the difficulties of organising an international conference while struggling against the west’s attempts to isolate Russia.

One, organised by Gazprom’s media company, asks how a decree Putin signed about “cultural sovereignty” can triumph in the face of “western cancel culture and destructive informational attacks on our society’s values”. Another is devoted to the trade ministry’s plans to revive Soviet “industrial films” that can “popularise industry and romanticise heroes of labour.”

The phrase “technological sovereignty”, a byword for ending dependence on western supply chains, appears 27 times in the draft programme. An entire panel is devoted to intellectual property — even though Russian industry has resorted to smuggling western-made components through third countries.

Despite the focus on sanctions, Ukraine and the war are only mentioned once, in passing, at a panel on veterans advertised as involving four little-known Americans, Putin’s cousin and several Russian officials who are the subject of sanctions.

A description warns: “Right now and in the next few years a large group will be formed in the country of people who have returned from the zone of the Special Military Operation with injuries that make it impossible to live as before, both for themselves and those around them” and calls on Russia to study the experience of Israel, Armenia and the US.

Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, second from right, at a meeting with Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, left, in September last year © Ukrainian Presidency

Foreign representation is still stronger than at last year’s forum, where the overwhelming majority of speakers were Russian and the most visible foreign delegation was from the Taliban.

The few western businessmen there tried to keep a low profile, some going as far as asking organisers to keep their names off their badges to avoid recognition.

Attending the conference would have been a highly unusual move for Schmidt, who ran Google from 2001 to 2011. Last September, Schmidt visited Kyiv, where he met senior aides to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and praised Ukraine’s use of tech to resist Russia’s invasion.

Schmidt was named in the proposed line-up for a discussion on artificial intelligence alongside British computer scientist Stephen Wolfram, prominent AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky and Stanford professor Strebulaev. Other panels advertise appearances by Sloan Gibson, a former US deputy secretary of veterans affairs during president Barack Obama’s administration, and Lucid’s Rowlinson.

Strebulaev, who said he was unaware of the Kremlin’s plans to have him speak at the event, quit Russian tech giant Yandex’s board last March, saying it could no longer “provide a free and open platform for information for the Russian public without breaking the law and putting the company and its employees at risk”.

Yudkowsky has said that he supports supplying aid to Ukraine and told the FT he had received an invitation to the forum, but had not replied. Wolfram said through a spokesperson that he was invited but would not attend.

A spokesperson for Rowlinson said he had not heard of the event and wanted no association with it. Gibson did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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