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RBCC Russia Talk 2009
Text and photos by Ian Mitchell

This year’s RussiaTalk forum was the first organised by the new Russia Director of the Russia-British Chamber of Commerce, Chris Gilbert, who took over from Neil Cooper last summer. The format was similar to that of previous years but there was an air of slightly greater controversy. Whether this was due to different scheduling of the speakers or whether due to a different atmosphere in the Russian business community is debatable. One thing was obvious: it was mainly a Russian event, unlike previous years where there were as many, if not more, Englishspeaking presenters than Russians.

The RussiaTalk Forum in progress at the Old Stock Exchange

The mood in 2009 was more workmanlike. The format in previous years had been more akin to a seminar at which the leaders of the business community in Russia and their counterparts in government made pronouncements on the economy and its prospects. In 2009, there were fewer headline political speakers, but more businessmen prepared to voice criticism of public policy. It is perhaps to be regretted that the senior government figures of previous years were not there to hear what these people had to say.

Of those who did attend, the most notable was Arkady Dvorkovich, the economic advisor to the President of the Russian Federation. He conveyed a different impression from last year, when his essential message was that Russia was going to be largely unaff ected by the global financial crisis. This time it would not be fair to say that he had his tail between his legs, but certainly it was wagging below the horizontal. Here was a man who was doing a lot more listening and a lot less glib rebutting.

By contrast, Gennady Melikyan, the First Deputy Chairman of the Bank of Russia, gave a combative defence of his institution, enlivened by wild gestures and an almost shouted delivery. His point was that there was little to criticise in Russian fiscal management. However, he was taken severely to task by Boris Titov, Chairman of Delavoya Russia, who presented an unvarnished view of the inadequacies, as he saw them, of Russian economic management, and also of the performance of the Bank itself.

Titov’s basic point was that Russia is not competitive internationally, whatever the government may choose to say it believes, and it never will be until it has a complete change of economic management. He was obliquely supported in this view by the day’s other lively talk, which was given by Oleg Chirkunov, the Governor of the Perm Region. He is one of Russia’s less “Soviet” local government leaders. At one point, the meeting threatened to get almost lively.

Perhaps in future years more of this sort of debate would be useful. Frank exchanges of view are much more interesting than diplomatic platitudes.

Gennady Melikyan,
First Deputy Chairman of the Bank of Russia

HRH Prince Michael of Kent

The only other speaker who talked controversially was Karl Johansson, the American representing Ernst & Young. He made a number of criticisms of Russian economic management, but unfortunately did not have enough time to draw any sort of analytical conclusion. Many attendees felt there were too many speakers. Some of the less controversial guests could have been sacrificed in order to make time for wider and more robust debate.

There were two social highlights to the event. One was a very enjoyable drinks party in the beautifully restored Museum of Folk Art near Novoslobodskaya. The other was a remarkable concert by the Globalis Symphony Orchestra, held in the basement concert hall of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral at Kropotkinskaya, at which a programme of music composed by members of the Russian royal family was played.

Much of it had never been performed in public before, quite undeservedly I should say. The highlight was a trio of orchestral pieces written by no less a figure than Tsar Alexander II. HRH Prince Michael of Kent, the Patron of the RBCC, gave a short speech at the end, in which he said he had no idea that he had such talented ancestors. I think he reflected the view of most of the audience.

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