US executives and officials are threatening to stay away from Russia’s premier economic forum in response to Moscow’s continued detention of prominent American investor Michael Calvey and growing anger at his treatment.
Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador to Russia, said he would not attend the St Petersburg International Economic Forum while Mr Calvey remained in jail, and no important US company leaders have made plans to attend the June event, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Mr Calvey set up Baring Vostok 25 years ago and the fund is now the largest private equity investor in the country. He was arrested last month on suspicion of defrauding Vostochny Bank of Rbs2.5bn ($37m) and has been denied bail.
The 51-year-old Mr Calvey, who denied the charges, said the case was being used to pressure him and his fund as part of a corporate dispute with another shareholder in the bank.
Since the opening of the investigation, which President Vladimir Putin is understood to support, several US businesses have cancelled planned investor trips to Russia or sought advice regarding the safety of their American employees in the country, people with knowledge of the discussions told the Financial Times.
“It is hard to overestimate how freaked out people are . . . and the depth of people’s apprehension,” said one of the people, who declined to be named owing to the sensitivity of the case.
“People used to tell themselves that X, Y or Z happened to someone because they did not follow the rules or were too political,” they added. “The reason the Calvey case has been so disturbing and game-changing is that with him it is impossible to construct that narrative . . . If he is in jail, it could happen to anyone.”
Many prominent US investors in Russia or senior executives at American companies operating in the country are friends with Mr Calvey and his family. Russia’s largest foreign business lobby groups have called for his release, while several prominent Russian executives have publicly voiced their support for him.
Mr Calvey’s arrest has further damped foreign investor appetite in Russia, already battered by the geopolitical fallout from souring relations between Moscow and the west, and the impact of sanctions imposed by the US, EU and others against Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“There is damage to the investment climate [by the Calvey case] and a lack of international presence in St Petersburg would be a clear sign of that,” said one senior foreign executive in Moscow.
Mr Huntsman, who has been a strong advocate for deepening US-Russian corporate relations in recent years, told representatives of American businesses in Russia last month that as long as Mr Calvey remained in jail, he would not attend SPIEF.
A spokesman for the US embassy in Moscow declined to comment. “Accreditation for the Forum is open and will continue up to the start of the event,” the organisers of SPIEF told the FT, adding that the US delegation is traditionally one of the largest.
SPIEF is Russia’s most prominent corporate event, and last year was attended by eight US chief executives including Boeing International head Marc Allen, in addition to Mr Huntsman and the heads of energy groups Total, BP and Royal Dutch Shell.
Russia has sought to use SPIEF to present itself as a global business and trade power. President Emmanuel Macron of France, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Italy’s then-prime minister Matteo Renzi have been guests in recent years.
Herman Gref, chief executive of Russia’s top lender Sberbank, which is one of the event’s four general partner organisations, said he hoped the charges against Mr Calvey were a “misunderstanding”.
Baring Vostok said in a statement that it had “often attended SPIEF and see it as an important event. As to this year, we haven’t had a chance to think about it.”
Additional reporting by Max Seddon