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Agence France Presse: Western business chiefs suppress bark at Russian Economic Forum

By Ben Perry
Mon Apr 23, 1:50 PM ET

LONDON (AFP) – Western business leaders avoided heavy criticism of Moscow here Monday during a showcase event for Russian enterprises that is being clouded by escalating tensions between the Kremlin and European Union.

The 10th annual Russian Economic Forum has been hit by the boycott of top Moscow officials and Russian business chiefs. Non-Russian delegates who did attend expressed shock at the death Monday of the former Russian president, Boris Yeltsin.

Leading businessmen including an executive from Russia’s state-controlled gas giant Gazprom and an economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin, were among those who cancelled their forum attendance at the 11th hour.

Barclays Capital chairman Hans-Joerg Rudloff told the London-based event that his call-up to the podium as a last-minute replacement provided impartiality to proceedings.

“It gives me the opportunity not to be called a poodle of the Russian presidential Russian administration,” Rudloff said on the second day of the gathering, which ends Tuesday.

He went on to speak highly of Russia’s economic progress since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, while noting the need for further change.

“Russia is integrating in our world, trying to engage, trying to improve the many things that still have to improve. Clearly not just looking at natural resources but trying and wanting to industrialise,” Rudloff told delegates.

According to Roger Munnings, forum chairman and president of the Russian arm of global finance group KPMG, Russia was earning revenues totalling 500 million dollars (369 million euros) a day from oil exports.

“The rest of the world needs Russia for hydrocarbons and energy supply,” Munnings said.

The EU’s reliance on Russian energy was highlighted late last year when Ukraine refused to pay inflated prices for Russian gas.

Moscow retaliated by briefly halting supplies to Ukraine, which led to a knock-on disruption of supplies across Western Europe.

Among Russian business executives boycotting this year’s forum are Alexander Medvedev, deputy chairman of Gazprom, and the president of oil company Rosneft, Sergei Bogdanchikov.

Moscow last week expressed fury after Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, who was granted political asylum in Britain in 2003, called for the overthrow of Putin.

Ties between London and Moscow have been strained since the assassination by radioactive poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in November.

His associates accused Moscow of poisoning Litvinenko because of his opposition to Putin, a claim rejected by the Kremlin.

On Monday, there was only praise for another Russian president, namely Yeltsin.

“He will go down in history as the man who showed extraordinary personal courage,” Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, Sir Roderic Lyne, said at the forum.

“His leadership made a very major contribution to the peace of Europe and the peace of the world. That’s a pretty fine record,” said Lyne, who was appointed in 1999 after Yeltsin resigned the Russian presidency.

After learning that Yeltsin had died from a heart attack, some Russian delegates fled the forum in shock.

Russia-EU relations are being hampered also by Moscow’s increased investment in leading Western companies at a time when the Kremlin is accused of curtailing their progress into Russia.

Analysts believe that the Russian state mounted a campaign to force Anglo-Dutch energy giant Royal Dutch Shell to recently relinquish its grip on the giant Sakhalin-2 energy project, using a series of tough environmental checks as a negotiating weapon.

Addressing the forum, the head of Shell’s Russian operations, Chris Finlayson, called for clarity on Russia’s laws that govern the participation of foreign companies in domestic oil projects.

He added: “We continue to see this country as one of our strategic growth regions for the future.”

Finlayson’s comments came just days after the conclusion of a 7.5 billion-dollar deal that saw Shell cede control of Sakhalin-2 to Gazprom.

 

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