Thanks to the generosity of RT TV and Peter Lavelle I had the great good fortune to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (“SPIEF”) in St. Petersburg which has just ended.
I shall be writing a series of reports about my impressions of SPIEF. However in this short report I will concentrate purely on the atmosphere.
This is the second time I have attended SPIEF. The previous occasion was in May 2014 in the immediate aftermath of the Crimean Crisis and whilst the war in the Donbass was in active preparation. Though the collapse in oil prices and the devaluation of the rouble that went with it had still not come about there was a clear sense of a recession coming and the mood as I remember it was nervous and embattled. Europe’s political leadership collectively boycotted the Forum and though there was a sizeable contingent of European business people present they seemed to all come from one country – Germany – and were clearly there more for purposes of damage limitation – to protect their investments and their businesses – than for any more ambitious purpose. They were also keeping as low a profile as possible.
The Chinese by contrast were there in force, led by a senior member of the Chinese Politburo, and in the absence of the Europeans and the Americans they completely dominated the discussions.
The contrast this time could not have been greater. Though many of the same German business people I remember from 2014 were there again, the other Europeans who had previously stayed away were there this time in force with Renzi of Italy and Sarkozy of France – the latter widely expected to be the next French President – taking an extremely prominent role (the Germans were indirectly represented by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker). In fact the Forum was a fascinating study in European diplomacy with meetings not just between Putin and these leaders but with contacts between the Russians and the Europeans being re-established at all levels, with business people and officials from both sides at last actively talking to each other.
If the Europeans were present in force and feverishly busy, the Asians were also there though where it was the Chinese who dominated in 2014 the focus this time was very much on the Eurasian Economic Union with Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan along with Renzi and Sarkozy the star guest. As I will explain more fully in subsequent reports, the Eurasian Economic Union far from being relegated by the Russians in importance was the centre-piece of Putin’s speech to the plenary session, and is if anything for the Russians growing in importance.
As for the (relatively) lower visibility of the Chinese by comparison with 2014, this is actually misleading since it was for the first time made fully clear at this year’s Forum to what extent the whole project for the Eurasian Economic Union – though led by the Russians – actually revolves around the Chinese. Suffice to say that it was during the plenary that Putin announced his forthcoming visit to China on 25th June 2016.
Whilst the Russians were engaging in active diplomacy with all ends of the Eurasian continent – with the Europeans, the Central Asians and the Chinese – one powerful community of states was prominent by its absence. This was the Anglosphere with the US and its Anglophone allies – including I am sorry to say the British – almost wholly absent. The few British representatives I encountered made a brave show. However they could not make up for the absence of any significant British political heavyweights there. As a British citizen it pains me to admit what is fast becoming the unavoidable truth: not since the fifteenth century has Britain been less important in European and world affairs. The fact the British seem unaware of their slide into irrelevance makes the fact for me even more painful.
As for the US, quite apart from their constant repetition of the mantras of how “isolated” Russia has become and what an international “pariah” it is, their refusal to recognise Russia’s importance is perhaps best set out in this quite remarkable comment of President Obama’s made during his recent interview with The Atlantic:
“You don’t see him (Putin – AM) in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”
Any outside observer in St. Petersburg during the days of the Forum would have come away with precisely the opposite impression. Not only were the Russians at centre stage, setting the agenda at a major international gathering taking place on their own soil, but the US was nowhere present.
What makes this US exclusion particularly bizarre is that it was entirely self-inflicted. Not only were no US political leaders or diplomats present but the US business community under orders from the White House stayed away. Or pretended to, since I heard well-informed reports that big US companies which under pressure from the White House had refused invitations to attend the Forum had nonetheless sent representatives to St. Petersburg, who quietly met with Russian officials and business people not at the Forum itself but in the city’s restaurants, hotel lobbies and cafes. To such lengths of skullduggery have the citizens of the world’s greatest superpower been reduced to by the actions of their own government!
In the absence of any official US presence the US point of view – to the extent that it was aired at all – would have been communicated by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, who is known to be especially close to the US, and who I suspect was performing the same service for Obama and Kerry that the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker was performing for Merkel and Steinmeier.
Though inevitably it was the international diplomacy that captured most of the attention, for the Russians much of the discussion at the Forum centred on the situation in their own economy. The most heavily attended panel I attended was one on economic policy at which the speakers were Kudrin, Nabiullina and Siluanov. The other side of the economic policy divide, consisting of supporters of a more controlled economy like Glazyev and Degtyarev, was also well-represented. Needless to say the panels where these questions of economic policy were discussed were attended overwhelmingly by Russians rather than foreigners.
I shall discuss some of the themes that came out of these discussions in detail in later articles. Here all I would say is that there was an unmistakeable and dramatic shift in the mood compared with 2014. Whereas in 2014 the sense was of an economy on the brink of recession – though no-one in May 2014 could have imagined the oil price collapse and the devaluation that were to come – the mood this time was strongly upbeat, with a palpable sense of the corner having been turned and of the worst being well and truly over.
This change in the mood was most obvious in the persons of Kudrin and Nabiullina. Where both had been very much on the defensive in 2014, with Kudrin constantly talking about himself and Nabiullina coming over as shy and intense, on this occasion both were brimming with confidence with Nabiullina especially – for all the criticism she has come under – cutting a commanding figure.
In summary, the mood this year at SPIEF was of a country emerging from a period when it had been forced onto the defensive and which is now preparing itself for fresh advances both in its foreign policy and in its economic life. Moreover, contrary to what is sometimes said, it has a clear idea of where it wants to go. Though everyone expects a Hillary Clinton Presidency, there is quiet confidence any problems it causes can be successfully managed and that the period for the country of the greatest danger has passed.
In saying this I should stress that this was the mood in the Forum itself. Outside the Forum it may be different. Pressure of time meant I had no opportunity to gauge popular feeling outside the Forum, though St. Petersburg from what I briefly saw of it seemed vibrant enough. However there is usually a time lag between the return of an upbeat mood amongst a country’s leadership and that of its general population, and I have no reason to doubt that is true in Russia as it is everywhere else. However on the assumption nothing goes dramatically wrong over the coming weeks, we should certainly be seeing a recovery in public confidence by the time of the parliamentary elections later this year.