Global elite policymakers, business gurus and activists are regathering Monday as the much-ballyhooed World Economic Forum (WEF) gets underway this week after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The annual meeting in the Swiss Alpine town of Davos returns to face another momentous crisis: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia would normally have its own “house” at the World Economic Forum as a showcase for business leaders and investors.
This year, the space on the dressed-up main street in Davos has been transformed by Ukrainian artists into a “Russian War Crimes House,” portraying images of misery and devastation.
Russia has denied allegations of war crimes in the conflict.
Ukraine is top of the agenda for the four-day meeting that kicks off with a video address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The theme of the World Economic Forum, “History at a Turning Point,” also sets the tone for the meeting in the glitzy Swiss mountain resort that will be dominated by the political and economic fallout from the conflict.
When the WEF last took place in Davos in January 2020, the coronavirus was just brewing in China before morphing into a devastating pandemic.
A Davos forum took place virtually last year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin among the speakers.
Russian business and political leaders, who used to participate in debates and mingle with other A-listers at parties, were barred by organizers from attending this year’s gathering over the war.
Ukrainians, meanwhile, have deployed a strong contingent, including the foreign minister, to plead their case, in addition to Zelenskyy, who is scheduled to address the forum via videolink on Monday.
“This is the world’s most influential economic platform, where Ukraine has something to say,” Zelenskyy said in his daily video address on Sunday night.
“The major request to the whole world here is: do not stop backing Ukraine,” Ukrainian lawmaker Ivanna Klympush Tsintsadze told reporters on the eve of the summit.
Another deputy, Anastasia Radina, appealed for NATO-style heavy weaponry to “win the war.”
“We actually need weapons more than we need anything else,” she said.
WEF founder Klaus Schwab said last week that Davos would do what it can to support Ukraine and its recovery.
“Russia’s aggression on the country will be seen in future history books as the breakdown of the post-World War II and post-Cold War order,” he said.
Aside from the Ukraine crisis, the post-pandemic recovery, tackling climate change, the future of work, accelerating stakeholder capitalism and harnessing new technologies are among the topics scheduled for discussion at Davos.
More than 50 heads of state or government will be among the 2,500 delegates, ranging from business leaders to academics and civil society figures.
Some of the biggest names include European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.
On the business agenda, discussions are likely to focus on the souring state of financial markets and the global economy.
After a sharp bounceback from the downturn triggered two years ago by the onset of the pandemic, there are now myriad threats to that recovery, leading the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to downgrade its global growth forecast for the second time since the year began.
Inflation due to hobbled supply chains emerged as a problem last year, particularly in the U.S. economy.
That has been compounded since the beginning of 2022 by events including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and waves of COVID-19 lockdowns across China that have stalled a recovery.
The Ukrainian artists are hoping to get their message of fighting for a better future to world leaders in Davos.
Visitors are confronted by images such as a badly burned man in Kharkiv after Russian shelling and a film made up of thousands of pictures of dead civilians and bombed houses.
“This is a place where all influencers and all decision-makers of the world come together,” the artistic director of the PinchukArtCentre in Kyiv, Bjorn Geldhof, told Reuters TV.
“What is happening in Ukraine will define tomorrow,” he added.
Putin calls the invasion a “special military operation” to disarm the country and rid it of radical anti-Russian nationalists.
Ukraine and its allies have dismissed that as a baseless pretext for the nearly three-month war, which has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and shattered cities
While the WEF meeting may not be back to pre-pandemic levels, with Zurich’s airport expecting the number of flights to be about two-thirds of previous levels, its return comes as a welcome relief to the ski resort’s hotels and restaurants.
“It is another step back to normality,” Samuel Rosenast, spokesperson for the local tourism board, said last week.