(amends word in 6th paragraph to read "effectively")
By Dmitry Zhdannikov
ST PETERSBURG, Russia May 22 (Reuters) - Global business leaders are thin on the ground at Russia's main investment conference in the face of government pressure to stay away because of the Ukraine crisis, but the Kremlin has advised Russian media not to make a big deal of it.
In a confidential email seen by Reuters, the Kremlin advised loyal and state-run organisations to focus instead on the growing participation of Asian investors and the quality of discussions at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.
"The quality and number of companies participating has not decreased," the Kremlin message said, after big names were conspicuous in their absence following the imposition of U.S. and European Union sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine.
"The quality of discussions this year will probably be even higher because some companies will be represented not by their chiefs, who often play just ceremonial roles, but by top executives, who do all the practical work and take real decisions," the message said.
The remark may not go down well with chief executives who showed up on Thursday, the first day of the forum, despite suggestions by Washington that it is "inappropriate" to attend following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
"We are grateful to the U.S. authorities for the active promotion of the forum," the Kremlin wrote. "Those investors who for some reasons decided not to participate in the forum are effectively punishing themselves ... Nature abhors a vacuum".
It said that 29 executives had declined to participate in the forum. Twenty had cited external pressure and 13 of them were from the United States.
Firms that have not sent their chief executives include Exxon Mobil, Citi, PepsiCo and Goldman Sachs, although other senior representatives of those companies were attending.
President Vladimir Putin will attend the forum on Friday, two days after signing a deal with China to supply Moscow's Asian neighbour with natural gas, a shift in Russian energy flows away from Western markets.
"The Western world is no longer an absolute leader that can dictate its rules to everyone else. The epicentre of the global economic activity is increasingly shifting towards Asia-Pacific," the Kremlin email said. (Editing by Timothy Heritage/Mark Heinrich)