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Fake robots, annexed regions, escorts, and dancing delegates from the UAE: Highlights from the St. Petersburg Economic Forum's opening day

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Cover photo: Sota

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) kicked off on June 14 – the event will last for three more days, drawing to a close on June 17. Despite the fact that world leaders refused to attend SPIEF after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the event continues to label itself as “international,” and promises the presence of “dignitaries from more than 15 countries,” including the presidents of Algeria and Armenia, the prime minister of Cuba and the leader of South Ossetia (Russia recognized the breakaway state’s “independence” after Russian troops entered the region, while Georgia considers this territory occupied).

On the first day of the event, no president made an appearance. Instead, officials from the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine stood behind stalls displaying supposedly “Russian” products – cherries and cheese. SPIEF participants were also shown Russian drones ordered off the Internet, and robots that actually turned out to be animators in costumes. There was no shortage of media reports about female escorts, who traditionally attend the forum. Read more on SPIEF’s first day in a review by The Insider.

Dance by UAE delegation

A delegation from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) performed a dance at SPIEF, handing out dates and sweets to guests and forum organizers as a “sign of honor.”

Dmitry Orlov, General Director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications (APEC), claimed that the Kremlin is emphasizing “alternative directions of foreign economic activity” this year. The “directions” that may appear in the framework of this forum are South America, the Near and Middle East, and Southeast Asia, said Orlov. Separately, he emphasized that the UAE is among the forum's guest countries this year.

“New regions”

Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia also had stalls at the forum. The Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the annexed Zaporizhzhia region Radik Isyakaev was seen personally handing out boxes with “Melitopol cherries” which were “grown in Russia.” Tables of delegations from the occupied Kherson region, as well as the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” were adorned with information booklets.

Russia-installed “Acting Governor” of the Kherson region Vladimir Saldo also made an appearance at the forum, and dedicated his speech to the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP). A video of Saldo was published by Ksenia Sobchak's Telegram channel. Saldo also told journalists about “Russian warriors”:

“[Ukraine] really understood that they will not stop the events that are unfolding. They absolutely don't care about people. On those they call their own, on our own. All they did was try to give us a gift for June 12 [Russia Day], so they set things in movement. The counteroffensive has come to naught, mind you. The Kakhovka Hydroelectric Plant was destroyed exactly by June 12. We accepted the gift, and now we will develop even faster. The Russian soldier, the Russian warrior, the Russian weapon cannot be treated this way. It’s one thing when, of course, we left Kherson for strategic purposes – it was [part of our] strategy, we had the choice of staying. There is an order in the army. Like it, dislike it, orders are orders. Yeah, I didn't want to leave it. But there was an order. But now we are pushing back.”

Saldo also told newspaper Izvestia that a state of emergency had been declared on the entire territory of Kherson region – not only in the flooded settlements.

Russia claims that the dam of the Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) collapsed after a series of artillery strikes by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). According to Ukrainian intelligence, the Russian army blew up the plant, as mentioned by President Volodymyr Zelensky's adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak. OSINT researchers have suggested that the destruction of the dam began before it broke on June 6, adding that earlier damage and improper operation of the HPP by the Russian “administration” were the cause of the disaster.

Isolation of Russia

Russian government officials at the forum actively discussed a Bloomberg article titled “Putin’s Economic Forum Puts Russia’s Isolation on Display.” Before the invasion of Ukraine, SPIEF was an international event and a “magnet for global politicians and investors” – SPIEF 2023, however, has become a measure of Russia’s “deepening isolation,” according to the agency.

Judging from the program of the event, the organizers struggled to attract major political figures, with even some CIS leaders choosing to stay away. The forum was mainly attended by officials from countries that remained neutral to the war in Ukraine.

Bloomberg reported that Russia has had to rebuild its economic relations under the pressure of unprecedented sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. Even many of Russia's tycoons were wary of appearing at SPIEF in 2022 due to international sanctions. On the SPIEF website, organizers reminded foreign forum participants to bring dollars or euros in cash with them to St. Petersburg, as sanctions rendered their Visa and Mastercard debit cards useless.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented on Bloomberg's article on Russia's isolation to Izvestia correspondent Alexei Lazurenko. According to Zakharova, Bloomberg has “long ceased” to be what “Michael Bloomberg made it to be when he founded the agency.”

State Duma deputy Svetlana Zhurova, who also attended the forum, also did not avoid the topic. She said that people who approach Russia “in a friendly way” continue to communicate and interact with the country – “they don't care about Bloomberg and everyone else,” she told Izvestia.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, a regular SPIEF participant, did not come to the forum this year due to illness, his spokesman told state-run media outlet RIA Novosti.

“We won't get knocked down”

A SPIEF booth from Tambov honored one of the region natives, emigre composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, and exhibited a roly-poly doll (nevаlyashka, or “untopply”), which originated in Tambov, decorated with the letter “Z” – a symbol widely used by Russian propaganda in support of the invasion of Ukraine.

The inscription on the nevаlyashka read “Nas ne Zavalyt’” (“We won’t get knocked down”).

Photo: Snusmumriken / SOTA
Photo: Snusmumriken / SOTA

Fake robots

A large number of robots appeared on SPIEF’s opening day, intending to demonstrate a “technological breakthrough.” The robots, however, turned out to be animators in plastic suits, who imitated robotic movements as they walked throughout the expo. Journalist Ilya Shepelin drew attention to the story, originally aired by RIA Novosti:

Aside from animators in suits, the event featured HyperDog – a robot unveiled by a team from the Skoltech Laboratory of Intelligent Space Robotics.

According to St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka, a popular topic of discussion at the opening day was the replacement of last year's robot-waiter Dunyasha The Governor of the Perm region, Dmitry Makhonin, unveiled Dunyasha – a service robot selling ice cream and coffee – at SPIEF in 2022, which was widely discussed on social media:

This year, a new ice cream robot served guests with ice cream in cups, handing orders out through a toy replica of a Moscow subway car.

Escorts

Before SPIEF began, several Russian media outlets published reports that female escorts were planning to participate in the forum. Novye Izvestia reported that an escort website had added a special hashtag – #PMEF2023 (#SPIEF2023) – to the profiles of women willing to work at the event; the publication counted close to a hundred forms marked with the hashtag. According to the outlet, screenshots from private chats where women are offered work during the forum were also published in escort-themed Telegram channels.

The article notes that it is difficult to get into the SPIEF building without an invitation. Visitors are registered and checked in advance, and there are restricted areas inside the expocenter. Anyone can buy a ticket to the event as a “sole trader” for 1.2 million roubles ($14,300), but the women are listed as staff in specialized agencies, which then take a portion of their profits, according to the publication. The women also try to get into private parties in search of potential clients.

An escort-related scandal took place at SPIEF in 2021, when TV hostess Ksenia Sobchak filmed guests and drew attention to the women, asking one of them: “And what panel did you come to?” The woman turned out to be a lawyer, who took Sobchak to court demanding the removal of a clip depicting her in a video report about “female VIP hunters.” The journalist argued that there were no insults in the video, adding that there really were panels at SPIEF. “I'm going to a panel right now, too. Everybody goes to different panels here. [Panels] are a good word,” Sobchak commented at the time. The lawyer’s case was eventually rejected.

Drones

A number of new Russian drones were unveiled at the forum, according to a report by news outlet RBC.

Verstka journalists noted that the new “Patriot K30T” drone was displayed at SPIEF among a range of new UAVs – the device, however, is almost identical to UAVs sold by the Chinese company Autel Robotics. A video of the drone was published by the propaganda Telegram channel Readovka, noting that it was designed “for the Russian army.”

The Chinese company's device catalog includes the EVO II Pro V3 drone, the body of which is completely identical to the “K30T” – both devices have distinctive front and side sensors and radiator vents.

The only difference between the drones is the mounted cameras, but both have the same 16x zoom, the same operating time of 40 minutes, and a range of 15 km. On Amazon, the EVO II Pro V3 drone kit costs $2,500. On e-commerce website AliExpress, the drone at a discounted price of over 172,000 roubles ($2,050). Verstka noted that the price of the Patriot K30T displayed at SPIEF is still unknown.

The Insider previously reported how the 25th anniversary SPIEF in 2022 drew a line under the transformation of the event. Conceived as a platform for the exchange of opinions and informal meetings between the government and the private sector, the forum eventually evolved into a whimsical mix of a ruling party caucus and a collective therapy session. The participation of the Taliban and the heads of the Donbas quasi-republics further highlighted the ornamental nature of the event, which had long since outlived its usefulness. The “Russian Davos” had completed its transition from the hope of domestic capitalism into a one-man show with fake adoration from the subjugated audience.

The Insider covered the degradation of the nation's main economic fair in detail in a piece dated June 2022.

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