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Russia gathers thousands for economic forum despite pandemic

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  • The SPIEF officially began in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
  • It has been hosted every year since 1997.
  • It takes place in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, which has struggled to contain the spread of Covid-19.

A flagship economic forum has returned to St. Petersburg, with Russia aiming to signal that it has overcome the coronavirus pandemic and is open for business despite political tensions.

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), often nicknamed the Russian Davos, officially kicked off on Thursday and is the country’s main showcase for investors, attracting political and business leaders from around the world.

It has been held every year since 1997, canceled only in 2020 due to the pandemic, in the hometown of President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to speak at the forum in person on Friday.

“The forum is very important for the image of the city, the restoration of the growth of the economy and the revival of tourism,” St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov told the RIA Novosti news agency.

The scale of the forum is smaller than in previous years, with a maximum number of participants of 5,000. By comparison, SPIEF 2019 was attended by more than 19,000 people from 145 countries, according to organizers.

Leaders from China, France and India have previously attended the forum.

READ HERE | Biden to review Trump’s investment blacklist in China: report

This time Putin will be joined via a video link by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, who has sent one of the largest delegations this year.

The reduction in assistance also comes after a turbulent year for Russian diplomacy, as relations with the West, which have been deteriorating since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, reached a new low following the poisoning and imprisonment of the Russian critic. Kremlin Alexei Navalny.

It is also a difficult time for independent media and opposition groups in Russia who have faced increasing pressure in recent years.

New independent business outlet VTimes announced Thursday that it was closing after being branded a “foreign agent,” a designation that requires it to disclose its funding and tag its posts.

Handshakes, no masks

Russian officials say “bad policies should not be allowed to interfere with good business,” said Chris Weafer, analyst and founder of consultancy Macro-Advisory.

According to Weafer, one of the messages of the SPIEF this year is that “Russia has taken a turn and has learned from the last seven years” characterized by low oil prices and sanctions.

But in 2020, the inflow of foreign direct investment into Russia plummeted to the level of the mid-1990s, the central bank said in January, after years of steady decline in the context of sanctions.

The forum comes nearly a year after Russia lifted its strict lockdown that was imposed last spring when the coronavirus swept across the country.

Since late summer, most virus restrictions have been lifted and authorities have chosen to protect the economy and pin their hopes on Russia’s Sputnik V jab that was recorded in August.

The country still continues to record an average of 9,000 new infections per day.

READ ALSO | WHO gets closer to Delta Covid variant

To ensure safety from viruses on the forum, all participants this year must test negative for coronavirus before entering the site. Indoors, masks are required at all times.

Julius Bakazarov, a 19-year-old forum volunteer, told AFP that participants “never ignore requests” to wear masks or observe other measures.

But the reality is different, with few people covering their faces, handshakes between participants and large crowds gathered at the forum venues, an AFP journalist reported.

‘Observe the rules’

St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, has struggled to contain the spread of the virus, especially after a domestic tourism boom turned the former capital into a popular tourist destination.

Just a few days after the forum, the city will also host several matches of the postponed Euro 2020 soccer tournament that will bring together thousands of fans, both from Russia and abroad.

SPIEF volunteer Yekaterina Bolkhovskaya, who lives in St. Petersburg, said holding an event like the economic forum can only have a “positive effect.”

“This will remind people that if they want to participate in big events, then they must … observe the rules of hygiene and personal safety,” said the 19-year-old.


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