Sparse stands tell own story at Russia business forum

ST PETERSBURG, Russia, June 6 (Reuters) - Visitors to Russia’s top annual showcase for business needed only to look at the exhibition stands to understand what has happened to one of the formerly hottest emerging market investment destinations.

Dominating the main exhibition hall at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum was a large, green and white stand owned by state savings bank Sberbank SBER03.MM -- the firm charged with bailing out hundreds of failing Russian companies.

Close nearby, athletic young women dressed in skimpy gas-flame-blue skirts staffed the stand of state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom -- a reminder of Russia’s dependence on oil and gas exports. Behind them, large screens showed video of President Dmitry Medvedev opening a Far East gas field.

Around these two big stands was a large amount of empty space, a sharp contrast to the bustling main exhibition hall at last year’s Forum, when investment interest in Russia was at a peak and the country’s stock market value had soared.

Global multinationals were conspicuous by their absence from the stands this year -- though some of their CEOs were among the 646 foreign business executives attending.

Few Russian private sector companies were represented in the main exhibition hall, apart from the country’s main two mobile phone operators MTS and Beeline and oil firm Lukoil.

But in case participants were tempted to stray off message, a large collection of stands run by Russia’s state-controlled media ringed the hall to keep them on track.

State television channel Rossiya, state news agency RIA-Novosti, the Kremlin’s English-language TV channel Russia Today were all strongly represented.

Veterans of Russia’s high-rolling boom times -- which saw central Moscow streets fill with Bentleys, Porsches and luxury boutiques -- were not completely neglected.

Concealed amid the stand of OPK, a local property and shipbuilding company, was a staircase guarded by three women in immaculately tailored long black dresses.

Those who dodged OPK’s attempts to interest them in hotel projects or ice-breaking ships and ascended the stairs found themselves being served amuse-gueles in a smartly decorated area run by Moscow’s leading French delicatessen Hediard.

Drinkers tempted to drown their sorrows in hard times could sink vodka cocktails at the Russkiy Standard free bar but investors searching for projects to put their money into may have found the going harder.

Last year’s Forum featured a separate pavilion full of investment projects in Russian regions, complete with catalogues listing opportunities.

This year, the Forum’s budget was cut by a third and there was no such pavilion.

Editing by Matthew Jones