Increasingly isolated by economic sanctions, Russia reacted with fury to reports that Kremlin-friendly tycoons have been asked to stay away from the World Economic Forum in January.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned this week that no Russian delegation would go to Davos at all if the tycoons – Oleg Deripaska, Viktor Vekselberg and Andrei Kostin – were not welcome.
Ukrainian-born Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg with Russian President Vladmir Putin. Photo: AFP
Davos organisers have so far refused to comment on the threat and a boycott is unlikely to have much impact. Experts say the heyday of interest in Russia at Davos – along with the famed parties hosted by Deripaska and others – was already coming to an end.
Russia has been "reduced to irrelevance at Davos", says Pavel Baev, a Russia expert at the Paris-based IFRI institute.
"Russian affairs used to attract outsized attention at Davos," he wrote on the Eurasia Daily Monitor website after last year's event. But now "Russia's economy is stagnant, severely affected by corruption and lacking in new drivers."
Deripaska in particular has been closely associated with Davos and the billionaire aluminium magnate is renowned for his after-parties at the gathering. Liberal Russian TV channel Dozhd even joked last week that Davos had now "lost its party king".
Oligarchs like Deripaska grew in the shadow of Davos on the ruins of the Soviet economy. In the 1990s, Russia presented its reforms at Davos and in 1996 its businessmen proclaimed their support for the re-election of Boris Yeltsin at the forum.
Russia put on a dazzling show in 2008, with an exclusive evening at an ice rink with an armada of chefs and the best Russian skaters.
'Part of the game'
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that it was businessmen like the Russian tycoons who had made Davos the global draw it is today.
"Deripaska, Kostin and Vekselberg became what they are not because of the forum. But the Davos Forum became the Davos Forum thanks to such businessmen," Peskov told reporters last week.
Russia's influence at Davos started declining in 2014, when the West imposed sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
Deripaska, Kostin and Vekselberg are all on a list of individuals under US sanctions.
Chris Weafer, a financial analyst and longtime Russia watcher, said Russia's influence at Davos peaked in 2008 and has been falling since.
With the country's global economic weight also on the decline, he said, it was inevitable that Russia would take on a lower profile.
"2018 has been a turning point. The last year was more damaging in terms of sanctions than the previous years," Weafer said.
Until recently, Moscow had been saying it would send a bigger delegation to Davos next year.
Anton Kobyakov, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin, said in mid-October that there was "great interest both to representatives of the Russian side and to international delegations" in the forum.
"We urgently need to unite the international community which is ready for cooperation," he said.
Weafer said it was unlikely the Kremlin would follow through on Medvedev's threat, which was "more for the domestic audience" in Russia.
He predicted Russia would send a "reduced delegation" to Davos, saying its economic strategy remains "not allowing bad politics to affect good business".
"There is a lot of frustration on the Russian side because of sanctions. But they will go to Davos.... They will turn up, but with no expectations. It's part of the game."