More Russians Back in Davos,
Still Rich but Now ´Respectable´
Report from Davos
.....A formal $70-per-head dinner here to discuss Europe´s ties with Russia......
The Russians are coming, but quietly. And that is just how some of them seem to want it to be. A decade ago, before the financial crisis of 1998 ended the stampede of Western investors looking for a slice of post-Soviet riches, Russian executives attending the annual World Economic Forum in this Alpine resort carved out quite a reputation. They were flashy high-rollers and hard-partiers, whose tentacles spread to the heights of political and economic power. These days, said Anatoly Karachinsky, a Russian software executive, "my American friends say they look at Russia as a normal country and that´s fine; we are integrated into the world economy." Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the 39-year-old chief executive of Yukos, Russia´s second-biggest oil producer, said that a decade ago, Davos´s night spots were "all something new" for Russians. "These days, Moscow is one of the liveliest cities in Europe, and we are all 10 years older now," said Mr. Khodorkovsky, who is possibly Russia´s richest man. "So anybody who wants to go out and party and have a good time can do so in Moscow. And they come here for other reasons." Those reasons, mainly, are to talk and schmooze and convince the world that after defaulting on its debt in 1998 and bamboozling Western investors, Russia now has a youthful economic elite that has changed. But the gates are not wide open to this by-invitation event. In 1996, the number of Russian participants here reached a high of 76. After the crash of 1998, it fell to just half that. Since then, it has been climbing back and reached 52 this year — dwarfed by an overwhelming American and Western European presence among the 2,000-plus participants. "If we opened the door, we would have about 100 Russian business participants," Klaus Schwab, the forum´s founder, said in an interview. "But we are very restrictive, and we try to invite only those who have a good record in terms of corporate governance and so on." Indeed, the Russian participants — both from politics and business — were met this year with a broadside from Amnesty International. "There are human rights issues that business can´t ignore — arbitrary detention, appalling prison conditions, unlawful killings, disappearances, gross violations in Chechnya and pervasive corruption everywhere," said Irene Khan, Amnesty´s leader. "We are not asking companies to divest from Russia, or disinvest, but to influence human rights through their own policies and practices," she said. Naturally, the barons of Russian capitalism are not enthusiastic about such reminders of a not-too-distant past when so-called oligarchs used political influence — and by Western standards, highly dubious maneuvers — to wrest control of vast slabs of Russia´s previously state-owned assets. Mr. Khodorkovsky, for instance, was reported to have won control of the multibillion-dollar Yukos company for a relatively modest $159 million loan to the state. In 1999, he succeeded in muscling Kenneth Dart, an American billionaire, out of big stakes in Yukos subsidiaries by shifting assets to offshore subsidiaries. In several conversations, Russian executives bridled at any hint that the history of the post-Soviet 1990´s has somehow set them apart from the mainstream of global business. Indeed, they argued, recent developments in the United States have given them ammunition for a counterattack. With the accounting scandals at Enron and elsewhere, supposed paragons of American corporate virtue have fallen from the moral high ground. "There is much less suspicion than there used to be," Aleksandr E. Lebedev, a 43-year-old banker, said of the attitude toward Russian business. "It turned out that some Western countries were not at all better" And these days, said Ruben Varanian, 34, a prominent financier, Russians engaged in business "want to be respectable." That does not mean that they do not party anymore. On Saturday, Mr. Khodorkovsky had a party for fellow industrialists at one of Davos´s upscale hotels. A formal $70-per-head dinner here to discuss Europe´s ties with Russia was oversubscribed in what the Russians saw as a sign of growing interest. Moreover, Russian business seems more assertive in part because it has a story to tell of economic reform, partly repaid debt and growth far outpacing that of other European countries or the United States. Big companies are looking beyond Russian borders to expand. Furthermore, having made millions, some executives have apparently concluded that the best way to hang on to their wealth is to draw up rules of good behavior. Still, worries remain. "Has Russia dealt with corruption?" Mr. Khodorkovsky said. "No it hasn´t. Is it a problem? Yes, it´s a problem.But can it be said that Russia is the most corrupt country in the world? Not at all. There are many countries in Europe that are a lot more corrupt than Russia."