Blog: Simon WarburtonLockdown in St Petersburg

Simon Warburton | 23 May 2014

Energy companies formed a major part of this year

Energy companies formed a major part of this year's SPIEF

It's perhaps no huge surprise security is taken so seriously at this year's Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, but the sheer scale of the precautions is overwhelming.

Just getting out of the colossal Lenexpo venue last night - required the attention of ten - ten - separate people who each were on mobile phones and poring over maps to see how I could leave - one kind lady even insisting I text her when I reached town to make sure I'd arrived in one piece.

All roads leading up to and surrounding the conference centre - eight different gigantic pavilions on an island in St Petersburg are closed - the city is under shutdown with locals having to show passports just to be able to go into their homes.

The place is literally swarming with police and a bewildering array of security details - all sporting classic enormous Russian caps - is crawling over every inch. And that's before President Vladimir Putin's visit today - fresh from his US$400bn gas mega-deal triumph with China.

It means taxis have to drop you away from Lenexpo with a walk in.

Getting a cab here in St Pete or Moscow for that matter - is not as easy as it sounds. There are remarkably few licenced cabs and despite dire warnings it's not safe to use private car, sometimes you're given one whether you like it or not.

I asked for one through my hotel, assuming at least it would be official, but what actually turned up was a beaten up old Mazda, whose driver cheerfully announced himself as: "I crazy driver," before demonstrating just what he meant in a blur through St Petersburg, helpfully pointing out in some very Anglo-Saxon broken English, just what he thought of so many police being around.

And don't necessarily expect a receipt even from licenced cabs. I had a discussion last night with some Russians about how to order a taxi that would give me a receipt. A lot of head shaking finally settled on what was from then on referred to solemnly as the "official document," aka receipt but it's no way a given.

I interviewed AvtoVAZ CEO, Bo Andersson today (22 May) at the Forum just opposite ITAR-TASS' stand. Growing up, I'd always heard ITAR-TASS cited as an official Russian State news organisation and finally I got to see them in action.

I also found out what it stands for from the helpful lady on the gas producer, Novatek stand opposite, who let me interview Bo on their table and who, it turns out, sponsor the Russian national football team.  Gazprom also sponsors Champions League football.

They also told me what ITAR-TASS means: Information Telegraph Agency Russia - Teletape Agency of the Soviet Union.

Where I interviewed Bo Andersson is the media hub with TASS, Bloomberg, CNBC, who'd sent a sizable crew despite presumably US pressure not to attend, among others while I also met the international department of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) radio station, who gave me some 'birch water.' It tastes of wood.

You can't away from the elephant in the room here of Ukraine and I attended a session where former Trade Commissioner for the European Union, Peter Mandelson, now ennobled, referred to events in Crimea as an "illegal annexation."

During Mandelson's presentation, I was sitting right behind Russian Railways president, Vladimir Yakunin, his organisation recently bought PSA logistics division, Gefco for EUR800m and it's thought he and several of President Putin's inner circle - they both hail from St Petersburg - could be the target of US business sanctions.

 In the frenzied media scrum surrounding him afterwards - he is a major player in Russia - I asked him about Gefco but he politely told me he wasn't able to chat and that was that.

In an unscheduled move, AvtoVAZ asked if I would like to attend a dealer event they were having in the afternoon, so I went with Bo Andersson and his team to see a fleet of Lada Grant Liftbacks lined up right in front of the Winter Palace, where the Russian Revolution famously kicked off 70 years of the Soviet Union.

The old square reverberated to the pulse of thumping techno - everywhere has it - even middle-aged cabbies blast it out - while Bo Andersson held a Q&A with his dealers in a sweltering tent fielding praise and concerns in equal measure.

I also had a chat with the Mitsubishi Rus CEO, who had turned up and who outlined his thoughts on electric vehicle potential in regions such as Siberia.

My hotel has a disconcerting habit of locking the door to our block - it's away from reception - after 18:00 every evening requiring an escort through its labyrinthine corridors that would challenge the Minotaur on Crete.

This morning, I asked the receptionist what would happen if there was a fire? He thought for for a moment and replied. 'Then we come unlock it.' That's all right then.

You have to go with the flow here - you hear a lot of the phrase the taxi driver this morning told me when I asked why no seat belt: "This is Russia," he said and if you keep that in mind, it's an endlessly fascinating country.

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