Ghosts of former delegates haunt Davos cocktail parties

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People who go to Davos — people like me — are often derided as smug and arrogant. There is no denying that there is an air of self-satisfaction at many mountaintop parties. What a thrill, to find yourself rubbing shoulders with billionaires and potentates. Even better if you are on a panel, exchanging earnest ideas on how to “save the world”.

But this year, I could not help thinking about the ghosts at the cocktail reception. Those people who I had once met at Davos — but who are now dead, disappeared or in disgrace.

Top of the disgraced list is Vladimir Putin, who I met in a relatively dingy Davos hotel in 2009. At that point, Putin was still an honoured participant, happy (ish) to chat with a small group of western journalists — and the leader of a large and boisterous Russian delegation.

Davos used to be a big thing for the Russians. They held court, did deals and partied hard. Oleg Deripaska, the aluminium oligarch, held the most ostentatious party every year. At a dinner in 2019, I found myself sitting next to Alexei Mordashov, the billionaire boss of the steel company Severstal. We had a slightly surreal conversation about whether the Russian state had indeed sent assassins to Britain to try to kill the former agent Sergei Skripal. Mordashov claimed that he was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the orders had probably come from the Russian state. This year, I bumped into someone else who had been at that dinner and wondered aloud, when I would next see Mordashov? “Probably never,” was the response. Sounds about right.

Back in 2008, the year before I met Putin, I interviewed Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan, in Davos. “There is no danger in Pakistan,” he assured us. “Business is bustling.” A few months later he had been forced from office and gone into exile.

This was a relatively dignified exit compared to the fate of Viktor Yanukovych, then prime minister of Ukraine, who I found myself sitting next to at a Davos wine tasting in 2007. Since we did not have a common language, we sipped our Château Lafite in silence. While I am still going to Davos, I have largely cut out the wine tastings. But where is Yanukovich these days? He fled Ukraine in 2014, after the Orange revolution — and is thought to be lurking somewhere in Russia.

And then there are the minor operatives. When Donald Trump spoke at Davos in 2018, the White House official briefing the press was Rob Porter. A month later, he was forced to resign after allegations of wife-beating.

What of the business heroes of Davos, also prone to sudden falls from grace? Last year Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, was listed as an official partner of the forum. Now FTX has collapsed and Bankman-Fried has swapped his Davos badge for handcuffs.

This is an old story. In 2001, the forum held a session on the “shape of the 21st century corporation” — addressed by Kenneth Lay, the CEO of Enron. A few months later, Enron had notched up one of the biggest corporate bankruptcies in history. Lay was eventually arrested in 2004.

It is not just the Americans who have fallen. In 2018, Carlos Ghosn of Nissan was on the main stage at Davos, participating in a session entitled, “Towards a Better Capitalism”. That November, he was arrested in Japan. That same year, I met Jack Ma — China’s most celebrated entrepreneur — in Davos. He told the forum: “Love is important in business.” But the Chinese government evidently decided loyalty and discretion were even more so. After antagonising the party, Ma stepped back from business and fled the public eye.

By Chinese standards this is a pretty gentle defenestration. I often think of Rui Chenggang, a handsome Chinese TV anchor and reputed nationalist. I got chatting to him in 2014, after he attended my interview at Davos with the then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe (himself assassinated last year). Rui told me to look him up when I was in Beijing. I never got the chance because he was arrested that year on corruption charges. He is believed to have been sentenced in secret to a long jail term.

Western journalists have also come a cropper. Recently, the #MeToo movement has demoted household names — like the US TV host Charlie Rose, who interviewed Jack Ma at the forum in 2015 — from Davos to the doghouse.

What accounts for this run of ill-fortune? Is it me? Is it Davos? My tentative conclusion is that you meet people at the WEF when they are riding high. To get there in the first place, you may have taken big risks and seen them come off. That can make you feel infallible. But my advice to fellow Davos-goers: if you ever start to feel invincible, just take a look at the list of past participants. And shudder.

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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