The event, attended by Russia’s elite and held in President Vladimir Putin’s hometown, was billed by Putin and others as the first in-person international event of this scale since the pandemic changed the world. A total of 13,000 people attended, according to the organizers.
It was also an attempt to project Russia’s strength, with a first summit between Putin and President Biden less than two weeks away.
“Half of the world is sitting at home, but here the situation is better compared to many countries,” Putin boasted Friday at the forum, Russia’s answer to the annual global business conference in Davos, Switzerland. “Thanks to timely measures, the Russian economy and labor market are already approaching precrisis levels.”
A year has passed since Russia’s first — and last — coronavirus lockdown ended.
Counter to Putin’s optimistic message, Russia has struggled. It recorded approximately 475,000 fatalities above normal rates, considered by demographers the best way to measure the virus’s toll, between the start of the pandemic and the end of April, according to the Moscow Times, which analyzed data from Russia’s state statistics agency. (Russia’s official coronavirus headquarters has claimed that about 123,000 deaths were coronavirus-related.)
The country has touted its domestically made vaccines, but just 18 million people in Russia — about 12 percent of the population — have had at least a first dose, according to the Health Ministry. That compares with more than 41 percent of people in the United States who are fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Russians’ real disposable income contracted 3.5 percent in 2020, according to the state statistics agency. The spike in food prices has become the top issue for ordinary Russians.
Maria Pevchikh, an ally of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, said on Twitter that the economic forum is a “portal to a parallel fake world.”
But Russia’s reality permeated the conference. The foreign attendee presence was slimmer, in part because of the pandemic. But no-shows were also a result of Moscow’s growing status as an international outcast — over crackdowns on political opposition and Western claims that Russia has become a haven for computer hackers and ransomware pirates.
At Friday’s event with Putin, considered the forum’s marquee moment, Putin didn’t denounce Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for forcing down a civilian jetliner last month to arrest an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, who was onboard.
But Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who joined the session via video link, did. Kurz called a recent Belarusian state television interview with Protasevich a “forced confession” that Austria does “not see as acceptable in any way.”
Putin later scolded the moderator for asking about politics at a business conference.
Many at the forum were hopeful that the upcoming summit between Putin and Biden, in Geneva on June 16, will serve as an economic boost for Russia.
“Anything that indicates the renewal of the dialogue will be taken positively,” said Maria Gordon, chairwoman of the board of directors of Detsky Mir, Russia’s largest retail chain of children’s goods, and an independent director of the Moscow Exchange. “Anything that manifests itself as maybe common agenda — be that climate or security — will be taken as at least a resumption of communication versus just a very, very hostile environment.”
“But I think that if you look at the reaction in ruble when there was some suggestion of the Putin-Biden meeting, the reaction was almost outsized, because I think investors are very ready to jump to embrace any signs of a thaw,” she added.
The importance of the St. Petersburg forum for Putin was underscored by the fact that he made an in-person appearance, a rarity for him since the start of the pandemic.
Though Putin said he was inoculated with one of Russia’s domestically made vaccines earlier this year, he has continued to largely conduct his meetings over video conference. Most who meet with him face-to-face are first required to quarantine for two weeks.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that while Putin will gradually start attending more events, the distance work will continue, because “after all, the pandemic is not over yet.”
For Russia, that’s a business opportunity. Putin spent a considerable segment of his speech Friday suggesting the Russian government organize a program to vaccinate foreigners willing to pay for it.
“Despite everything,” he said, “life goes back to normal step by step.”