Russia’s flagship international forum showcases Putin’s pariah status

Not so long ago, the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) was widely seen as one of the “be there or be square” events for the world’s business elites, political leaders, and global influencers. Often called Russia’s Davos, SPIEF takes place every June in Russia’s second city, which also happens to be Vladimir Putin’s hometown. Throughout Putin’s reign, it has served as a showcase for the country’s economic, scientific, and technological achievements.

For years, multinational corporations by the score would pay handsomely to be partners of the forum, and would invest heavily in state-of-the-art exhibition stands. Participation was by invitation only, with careful vetting of those who were to have, once inside the entrance gate, virtually unrestricted access to the senior Russian government officials, CEOs, and other notables in attendance. The evening social and entertainment agendas were replete with over-the-top extravaganzas featuring many of the luminaries of Russia’s cultural beau monde.

SPIEF was also seen as a measure of Russia’s standing in the world as an economic and geopolitical power, and a reflection of the esteem in which world leaders held Vladimir Putin. Typically, no less than half a dozen heads of state or government from the world’s most important industrial and emerging market economies would typically join Putin on stage during the keynote address.

Most VIP political guests at SPIEF were democratic leaders, reflecting a desire to embrace Russia as a new member of the democratic club, albeit one that did not yet fully abide by the rules. Some leaders of a more authoritarian hue would also attend, but diplomatic politesse ensured that everybody was well behaved. The long days and mild weather, combined with the undeniable beauty of St. Petersburg, created an upbeat atmosphere and friendly spirits. As one who attended five SPIEFs, I can attest to the enchantment of it all.

While the weather and the venue have remained the same, SPIEF has experienced a gradual and then abrupt decline in status over the past decade. This process first began in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. It has accelerated dramatically following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and was all too evident in June 2024.

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Prior to 2014, SPIEF attendance had been regarded as more or less obligatory for the CEOs of all the largest international oil and gas companies. This year, however, the picture was strikingly different, with SPIEF attracting virtually no business leaders from G7 or EU member countries. Instead, there was only a relatively small contingent representing state-owned enterprises from other countries, mostly those that trade in sanctioned Russian oil and gas.

As far as can be gleaned from the official SPIEF website (personal attendance is now out of the question), the only partners and exhibitors at this year’s event were Russian companies, mostly state-owned or controlled. SPIEF claims to have attracted 21,200 participants, but this figure likely includes offsite events open to the public.

The most striking thing about the 2024 SPIEF program was the absence of high-level international political participation. Indeed, it must have been particularly painful for Vladimir Putin to share a stage with the presidents of Bolivia and Zimbabwe. Having lived in Bolivia, I do not mean to disparage that beautiful country; nor do I harbor any ill will toward Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that Putin most certainly does not see those leaders as peers. Nor do they compare to the global heavyweights who traditionally participated in previous SPIEFs.

The only other “heads of government” in attendance in St. Petersburg this June were the leader of Georgia’s Russian-occupied Abkhazia region, and the head of Republika Srpska, a sub-national entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This underwhelming international guest list at Russia’s flagship annual economic forum speaks volumes about Putin’s pariah status.

The reasons for the absence of democratic leaders at SPIEF are obvious and require no further explanation. At the same time, it is interesting to note that numerous putative allies of Russia also gave the event a miss. Perhaps Chinese President Xi’s recent visit to the Shangri-La Conference in Singapore was too close in timing. Significantly, Iran chose not to send any senior officials. The leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba similarly stayed away.

The absence of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad came as no surprise as he rarely travels. But what about Russia’s BRICS partners Brazil, South Africa, and India? Meanwhile, the most glaring absence of all was Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka. No other head of state is as personally indebted to Putin, who saved Lukashenka in 2020 after anti-regime protests erupted across Belarus following a sham presidential election.

Russia’s remaining partners are clearly in no hurry to engage in public demonstrations of support for Moscow. Nor can the Kremlin necessarily count on Putin’s fellow pariahs. If SPIEF is Russia’s showcase, then the glass evidently needs a thorough cleaning.

Edward Verona is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center covering Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on Ukrainian reconstruction aid.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: A cleaner cleans the floor against the background of a screen with a live broadcast from the congress hall of the Expoforum Exhibition and Convention Center building, where a plenary meeting is being held with Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of the third day of the 27th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. (Artem Priakhin / SOPA Images via Reuters Connect)