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who still wants to do business with the Kremlin?

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An international forum with hardly any Westerners: such is the challenge of the “Russian Davos” that Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is organizing this year in Saint Petersburg. On the banks of the Neva, like every year during the famous sleepless nights which for twenty-five years had attracted the CAC 40 and other big bosses from the West, all the cream of Russian business meets to seduce foreign investors. But this year, nearly four months after “special military operation” in Ukraine according to Kremlin understatement, one of the key events of the forum had to be cancelled: Vladimir Putin’s meeting with major international investors.

Russian-African relations in the spotlight

“Simply because, this year, there is no real big investor at the forum…”, summarizes Sergei Krassilnikov, deputy president of the main Russian employers’ organization. This Thursday, June 16, he has just participated in the only panel of the forum devoted to relations between Russia and the West.

In previous years, the main European countries, France in the lead, organized round tables, breakfasts and multiple informal meetings. In 2022, this program is minimal. “And this is likely to last a long time in the future. Alas…”regrets Sergei Krassilnikov, until then one of the architects of Russian-European industrial cooperation.

In the meantime, he is off to what is one of the main events of the day at the forum: the Africa-Russia roundtable. In a room three times larger than the one dedicated to dialogue with Westerners, where Russian officials and African guests crowd, the message is repeated many times: “We are in a transition phase. Russia and Africa must find new opportunities to work together”declares in particular the new Central African Prime Minister, Félix Moloua.

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A very discreet French businessman

“We observe… You have to get out of your bubble and think about the future! », slips a French businessman, used to the forum but who, this year, prefers to remain anonymous. “In Paris, Russia has become toxic. It is better to remain discreet »he justifies himself, while thinking business and shaking hands with former Russian partners.

None of the traditional panels with Western countries are on the program this year, but the round tables with China, Egypt, Latin America or Iran follow one another. “We want to go further with you! », says Nevin Gamea, the Egyptian Minister of Industry, all smiles. Beside her, Denis Mantourov, his Russian counterpart, answers him with figures: one million Russian tourists in Egypt last year, six million tons of cereals delivered, trade between the two countries up by more than 20%…

A Taliban delegation

A few steps away, Egyptian outfits give way to Afghan turbans. A Taliban delegation has indeed been invited to the forum. “Our two countries are friends. It is time to strengthen our economic relations”, says Mohammadyonasss Hossain, deputy director of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In the corridors cross other delegations not very visible in previous years, coming from Africa with their colorful boubous or… from the two pro-Russian separatist republics in eastern Ukraine. Always with the same theme: new opportunities in a new world » according to the catch-all slogan of the forum, which announces that it will welcome 40 foreign delegations in total.

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A communication exercise

Despite everything, there is a feeling of unease in the air. The panels follow one another. The stalls are teeming with activity. “But this is not the forum of great years, plural and professional. In the end, there are fewer people. And especially fewer people among the important Russians. A lot of people didn’t want to come.” says a regular.

This Friday, Vladimir Putin is expected at the podium. The head of the Kremlin will speak alongside his Kazakh counterpart, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and by videoconference only, with the Egyptian Abdel Fattah Al Sissi. A video address by Chinese President Xi Jinping is also scheduled. “In short, on the platform of the forum, Putin will be quite alone! In any case, he who has just compared himself to Peter the Great gives more and more the impression of no longer needing someone opposite, regrets Fiodor Lukyanov, renowned Russian expert in international relations met in the corridors of the congress. This forum far from business looks like a great communication exercise to show that the Kremlin is not isolated. »

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