January 31, 2003
No News Is Good News At Davos
The Russians didn't make much of a splash at Davos this year.
They weren't the star attraction they were in the early and mid-1990s, when Yeltsin's reformers and newly minted millionaires burst on the scene with their flashy parties and infectious exuberance about doing business in Russia.
Back then, everyone wanted a look.
"It was like we were in a zoo," FSC chief Igor Kostikov said at this year's World Economic Forum. Keeping to the theme, one Western businessman likened the Russians at Davos a decade ago to exotic Siberian tigers.
They also weren't the outcasts they were after the 1998 default, when many Western investors lost their shirts.
Only two years ago, aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska was uninvited from Davos because of a lawsuit filed against him in the United States.
Concerns about corruption still limit the number of Russians at Davos, the forum's founder, Klaus Schwab, told The New York Times. There were 52 this year, continuing a steady increase from the immediate post-1998 years but still below the high of 76 in 1996.
More Russians wanted to come, Schwab said, "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."
But the Russians who were invited, as Kostikov put it, "played the same role as the British and the French, and this is very important." They participated as normal European businessmen and were treated as such. The only noticeable difference was how much younger they were than their European and American counterparts.
Andrei Illarionov, the president's economic adviser, said some Russian participants were disappointed they were no longer the center of attention. Still clinging to a Soviet mentality, they want to be first, whether that means being the biggest or the baddest.
"It's difficult to move from such a mentality and build a normal country," he said.
A more positive sign for Illarionov was that, unlike in previous years, no one at Davos asked him when Russia's next financial crisis will hit. "They asked about very important things, but not about a crisis," he said. "This shows a substantial change in the quality of interest in Russia."
As editor of The Moscow Times, however, I was asked by several people about the state of press freedom in Russia, showing there still is some concern about the country's course.
But there is no denying that Russia is beginning to blend in as a global economic player and is no longer being singled out as a source of instability and crisis.