Pavilion 7 at the Lenexpo Exhibition Complex in St Petersburg provides exhibition space for forum sponsors and partners. Photo: Wikipedia

Not a few who read the news coverage of the recent 25th St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2022) would have concluded that the four-day investment gathering was a washout. 

An image that might have given this impression was a picture several print and digital news organizations chose to carry as the main photograph from the event. It showed a huge projection of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the screen with attendees nonchalantly strolling past in the foreground. Some observed that the effect created was that of an effete Putin at a poorly attended event. 

The reality was anything but. Despite relatively low attendance numbers partly due to the ongoing sanctions and the hangover from the Covid-19 pandemic, SPIEF 2022 saw thousands of participants, energized, and re-establishing old relationships and constructing new contacts. The event ran from June 15-18.

The breakout sessions and discussions were also well populated, and no vacant seats were to be found where the key topics were Asian issues and Western investments. In not so many words, the accumulative sentiment was this: The companies present exhibited a desire to serve and protect their commercial interests and conduct business as usual. 

Addressing the attendees, Putin said in a 73-minute speech that history had proved the resilience of Russia and the country would weather Western sanctions aimed at harming it economically.

Although at times appearing tired, he perked up at crucial points to urge his people to seize this period of sanctions as an opportunity to produce – on their own – products and services withdrawn from their territory. Such junctures in his speech drew choruses of applause throughout the auditorium, comprising both a domestic and international audience.

Within the modern 50,000-square-meter convention and exhibition complex that is even equipped with helicopter pads, running concurrently was the SPIEF Investment and Business Expo, where three massive halls witnessed busy dialogues over B2B solutions and demonstrations of cutting-age technology. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) featured prominently at the exhibition and a robotic barista serving up caffeine-laced brews to jet-lagged participants captured the theme. With silken lashes and expressive eyes, the emotive humanoid would even share a fairytale while one waited for the ordered beverage. A few stations away, a live owl flaunting 270-degreee head rotations was turning human heads and attracting gawkers of its own.

Several corporate and government organizations cleverly rode on the publicity of SPIEF 2022, choosing to announce over the PA system at the exhibition halls signing ceremonies of deals and contracts done and dusted before the forum itself.

Security at the forum was definitely tight, and rows of accredited vehicles queued every morning waiting to be scanned for weapons and explosives. Covid was also a concern and only PCR (polymerase chain reaction) results from accredited test centers were accepted. 

The buzz created from all these activities certainly gave pause to the efficacy of sanctions. Contrary to reports by some international media, “unfriendly” and Western counterparts were in attendance. The atmosphere among all parties, regardless of their political inclinations, was not hostile and tense as reported by some but relaxed and friendly.

Post-SPIEF

Out on the streets, several big, familiar brands have been shuttered, leaving behind exposed mannequins in floor-to-ceiling glass displays. But many more enterprises remain open and are enjoying brisk business, especially with the exit of their competitors. 

If Russians choose to heed their president’s call to pull up their bootstraps, it is not inconceivable that the country will emerge stronger from their sanctioned hour. Those used to high-end Western brands will encounter little difficulty finding new ways to procure their objects of desire.

There were also substitutes, as could be seen from burgers bought and gobbled – even if their wrappers no longer bore the golden arches. Over time, it is likely that Russians will adjust their consumption habits to adapt to the new circumstances.

The much bigger hurdle for Russia, however, is seeking and achieving the elusive peace with its Ukrainian neighbor. Regardless of the heavy fog of war, decades of shared cultural, linguistic, and even spiritual ties simply cannot be effaced overnight.

Lily Ong

Lily Ong is a geopolitical analyst based in Singapore providing strategic risk advisory to individuals and businesses with economic interests in Europe-CIS, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. She has traveled to more than 90 countries.