ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - After a two-year break which felt more like a boycott, European leaders and chief executives of top multinational companies are back at Russia's top economic gathering in a sign of weariness about European sanctions against Moscow.
Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine landed President Vladimir Putin in international isolation. The European Union and the United States imposed economic sanctions and kicked Russia out of the G8 group of nations.
Once Russia's showcase of its geopolitical weight and economic attractiveness, the St. Petersburg Economic Forum — dubbed Russia's Davos — was a sore sight the past two years: European leaders and heads of the major companies who once had lucrative long-term projects in Russia were nowhere to be seen.
This year's gathering, however, signals what could be an emerging movement within the EU to ease economic sanctions on Russia. The sanctions didn't only affect the Russian economy by closing long-term EU lending to Russian companies but also triggered a Russian import ban on meat, vegetable and dairy products from the European Union, dealing a heavy blow on agriculture-dependent nations such as Greece.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is to address the forum later on Thursday, is the highest-ranking EU official to visit Russia since the Crimean annexation. Juncker's office, however, sought to downplay the significance of his visit, saying that it should not be interpreted as a sign that the EU will lift the sanctions when the time for review comes two months from now.
Another high-profile speaker is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose country was badly hurt when Russia closed its food markets to Italians along with other EU producers.
Moscow has sought to maintain good ties with Rome. While Putin was shunned in other European capitals, he was welcomed to Italy last year, meeting with Italian officials and Pope Francis. During their meeting in October, Renzi greeted Putin as Russia's ``dear'' president and didn't voice any criticism against the country's actions in Ukraine.
Chief executives of major European companies who are either engaged in long-term projects in Russia or whose projects were affected by the sanctions are also coming this year, including the CEOs of oil company BP, the chairman of the board of Nestle S.A. and others.
Moscow is keen to spin the attendance as a sign that European politicians have failed to convince businesses to break ties with Russia.
``We don't go around trying to convince our European and American partners to lift the sanctions,'' Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday. ``Those who imposed the sanctions, let them decide what should be done about this impasse they have created. But this impasse is slowly disappearing: the participant list of the St. Petersburg forum is a testimony to that.''
U.S. authorities, in their turn, were anxious to portray ExxonMobil's participation as an exception.
``We've been very clear on our engagements with U.S. companies that we believe that are clear risks, both economic and reputational, associated with top-level engagement with a government that is flouting the most fundamental principles of international rule of law by intervening military in a neighboring country,'' U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday. Those companies which are not going to St. Petersburg recognize, Kirby said, that ``attending this forum sends a poor message out there about the acceptability of Russia's actions.''