Showcasing isolation

The Bell

Hello! This week we look at Russia’s lavish annual display for foreign investors – the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Never before has it been so odd. Westerners stayed away altogether: instead, the star attractions were the leader of Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and a representative of the Afghan Taliban. One gave interviews about the execution of captured British citizens serving in the Ukrainian military, the other shied away from female journalists. There was a dearth of foreign leaders and Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was far from friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their joint panel session. Putin himself gave a 90 minute speech ‘proving’ that the West was in crisis and stressing the insignificance of the war in Ukraine.

The Taliban and separatists

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum was originally conceived by Putin as a way for Russia to demonstrate it was open for business. But, increasingly, it has been overshadowed by political events. In 2019, for example, economics took a back seat as the forum discussed the arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov. Two years later, the talk was of whether U.S. investor Michael Calvey would be able to escape house arrest to attend. Now, though, in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine, those distractions look minor.

Despite everything, the forum organizers were eager to remain ‘on message’. Once again, Russia appears to have chosen not to flaunt its international isolation, but instead seek to prove that nothing much has changed, save for some sulking on the part of a few “unfriendly” nations. St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov hailed the arrival of representatives from “140 nations and territories” at the forum. But this was an exaggeration: Putin adviser Yuri Ushakov admitted that only “40+ countries” sent official delegations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that foreign investors came to the forum despite “the collective fire of the West, which is twisting arms, threatening and blackmailing.”

The delegations that did show up were not high-powered. India’s delegation, for example, was headed by its health minister; and China did not officially name a leader for its delegation. Egypt was the only country to have a full-scale pavilion at the forum.

Instead, the stars of the show were Denis Pushilin, head of the DNR (only formally recognized by Russia in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine), and the head of the Taliban delegation, Yunus Momand, deputy head of Afghanistan’s chamber of commerce and industry.

Pushilin relished the limelight, signing agreements with Russian businesses and officials and giving interviews in which he discussed the schedule for the execution of two British citizens captured by Russian forces while serving in the Ukrainian military. He was adamant that there were no grounds for a pardon. The St. Petersburg forum has never seen anything quite like this – and didn’t really know how to respond.

Pushilin formally opened the forum Wednesday alongside Beglov at a ceremonial firing of cannons at the city’s Peter & Paul fortress. Yet, within an hour, St. Petersburg officials and state-owned media outlets that had published video footage of the ceremony deleted everything from their social media. Staff at one state-owned TV station told local independent journalists that cameramen were given strict instructions to cut Pushilin out of the frame when filming the cannon salute.

There were fewer problems with the Taliban, despite the awkward fact that the organization remains officially banned in Russia and is recognized as a terrorist movement. That hasn’t, however, stopped Russian diplomats from receiving Taliban delegations and inviting them to events. In St. Petersburg, the Taliban officials were far from communicative – and quickly became the butt of journalist jokes. A reporter from St. Petersburg media outlet Fontanka trolled the visitors, unsuccessfully trying to find out how they felt about being officially regarded as terrorists in Russia. After a curt “no comment”, the same journalist tried to get to the bottom of “a question that fascinated everyone: what is the assistant head of the Taliban delegation carrying in that large sports bag?”. Again, there was no answer.

An unfriendly summit

As is traditional, the forum was dominated by a plenary session involving Putin. Earlier in the week, Peskov announced that Putin would make “an extremely important speech”. A couple of days later, he went out of his way to insist that the president was not about to announce a mobilization. It’s unclear why this was necessary – it’s no longer early March when this rumor was widespread.

The speech itself (which lasted for almost 90 minutes) contained no surprises. Putin spoke Friday about how “crazy sanctions” were not hurting the Russian economy, but, instead, causing pain for the Western countries as they wrestle with a crisis caused by an ill-conceived coronavirus response. “Our special military operation has nothing to do with it,” Putin said. More than once, Putin insisted the Russian economy remained open for business and reaffirmed his belief that the West would come to its senses and that Western companies would soon return to operating in Russia as normal.

But the most interesting part was when the moderator, Margarita Simonyan (head of state-owned RT and a prominent hawk on Ukraine) began putting questions to Putin and Tokayev. Along with the president of Armenia, Tokayev was one of only two heads of state to travel to the forum. It was painfully clear that Tokayev’s presence was repayment for Putin’s support back in January when troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) helped to re-impose order in Kazakhstan and, at the same time, marginalize Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

However, Tokayev’s gratitude knows some bounds. That was apparent two days before he shared the stage with Putin when he gave an interview to state-owned Rossiya 24 in which he confirmed that his country would fully comply with Western sanctions on Russia.

Judging by what followed, Putin was aware of that interview. The highlight of the session was Putin’s attempt to pronounce his colleague’s name and patronymic – Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich. In January, when Kazakhstan was at the center of international attention as a result of civil unrest, Putin was already struggling with this difficult – but not impossible – name and twice uttered something incoherent. This time, at the start of his speech, Putin got it right – but during the Q&A session he again referred to Tokayev as “Kemel-Zhemelevich”, prompting a highly suspicious look from his supposed ally (this is clearly visible in the video).

Tokayev’s answers to Simonyan’s questions were far from the platitudes of an ally and some of what he said ran directly counter to Putin’s position. Diplomatic and courteous (Tokayev is a former UN Deputy General Secretary), the Kazakh president told Putin:

  • Kazakhstan “takes sanctions into account” (a response to a question from Simonyan suggesting the West must be pushing Kazakhstan to stop cooperation with Russia).
  • No economy can successfully pursue a policy of self-reliance and import substitution.
  • Ukraine’s accession to the European Union must be accepted as a new reality, even though its economy is in a dreadful condition.
  • The U.S., and the West in general, are not in the throes of a major crisis. At present, the U.S. economy is “modern and dynamic.”
  • That there are some Russian politicians, journalists and cultural figures who make “absolutely incorrect statements about Kazakhstan” and other states and “sow discord between our peoples.” This is likely to refer to occasional calls in the Russian parliament to protect the Russian-speaking population of Kazakhstan, which is concentrated in the north of the country. Such pronouncements are very reminiscent of the rhetoric in Russia about the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
  • Finally, without prompting, Tokayev dismissed the possibility of Kazakhstan recognizing the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. He dismissed the republics – recognized by Russia – as “quasi-state entities.”

You can watch the whole of the plenary session here, or read a transcript here.

The scandal continued Saturday when Kazakh media reported Tokayev had turned down the Order of Alexander Nevsky bestowed on him by the Russian government. The official reason was that Kazakhstan’s president is not permitted to accept honors from foreign countries while in office – Russian state-owned media devoted half a day to reporting this explanation.

Why the world should care

The St. Petersburg International Economic forum clearly set out to try and prove that Russia’s international isolation was limited to a handful of unfriendly nations that would soon “come to their senses.” It demonstrated almost exactly the opposite.

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