The latest World Economic Forum witnessed a major effort by Russia to present itself as a serious world player and also an attractive destination for inward investment. In his keynote address on Tuesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made a pitch to increase investment in Russia by 10% a year, adding in a defensive note that “Russia is an open country, whatever they might think or say.”
While Medvedev’s speech was clearly the headline event for the Russians, they were also assiduous in the margins. Indeed, according to Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, this year saw the largest ever Russian presence at the Forum. Davos, a networking event par excellence hosting some 50 world leaders, witnessed a major Russian charm offensive.
For all this, though, Moscow’s efforts rang hollow — not least because of the absence of the man who is the undoubted master of the Russian government, President Vladimir Putin. Even though many other heads of state were present, Putin — always a man who prefers to be the guest of honor rather than one of the crowd — chose to remain in Moscow, where he met with representatives of student sports clubs and welcomed the new Cuban ambassador.
In this context, foreign observers felt that Medvedev’s pledges to improve the climate for foreign investors, while encouraging, lacked authority. As one Western diplomatic source privately put it, “until Putin gives this speech, it remains just words.”
This reflects the continuing centrality of the man in Russian politics. Although questions have begun to be asked about his style of rule, longevity and even his health, there are no credible successors. One reflection of this was in a recent brainstorming exercise by the futures consultancy Wikistrat about potential “geopolitical surprises” in 2013. (Full disclosure: the author is a senior analyst for Wikistrat.) The main short-term development which it was felt might bring radical change to Russia was Putin’s death or incapacity. However, there was no consensus on quite what kind of change this would bring: even foreign experts find it difficult to see beyond Putin.
If, as has been suggested, Davos 2013 simply proved that “marketing is the new diplomacy”, then actually the meeting underlined the weaknesses of Russia’s brand. With plans to raise $10 billion in asset sales this year, Moscow is eager to seem investor-friendly, but Medvedev’s upbeat rhetoric was overshadowed by the U.S. Magnitsky Bill targeting officials accused of involvement in massive fraud at a Western investment house. Friendly gestures were set against the reality of Moscow’s continuing support for Syria’s Assad regime. The event was meant to be a blockbuster, but the leading man stayed home.