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World: Rich And Famous Convene At Economic Forum

  • Breffni O'Rourke



The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum gets under way in the exclusive Swiss mountain resort of Davos on January 27. As usual, a formidable array of prominent politicians, businessmen and thinkers will be present for the debates about where the world is heading. Also present to enliven the proceedings could be a lot of anti-forum demonstrators.

Davos, Switzerland, 26 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton heads the list of celebrities attending the World Economic Forum starting Thursday in the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos.

The privately run forum marks its 30th anniversary this year. As usual, the event (which runs from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1) has attracted scores of prominent people from the world of politics, business, economics and academia.

They include politicians like Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, and the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliev. Russian acting President Vladimir Putin may attend, but that's not certain.

Microsoft Corporation's Bill Gates, the world's richest man, is one of the top businessmen who regularly attend. Italian novelist Umberto Eco will be there this year, and so will Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the UN war-crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia. Royalty is not lacking, in the form of Monaco's Prince Albert and Britain's Prince Andrew, the Duke of York.

With a line-up like that, it's obvious the World Economic Forum is not limited to dry economics.

Cynics might say it's mainly an occasion for the rich and famous to rub shoulders with political and intellectual heavyweights. But the forum and its founder, Swiss economist Klaus Schwab, present a consistently serious program for the week of discussion.

Subjects this year range from the metaphysical, such as whether morality stems from God or from nature, through the scientific, such as the role of pollution in global warming, to the pragmatic, such as trends in direct foreign investment.

Millennium fever has, of course, been felt in Davos this year. Forum Managing-Director Claude Smadja says the 2000 forum can help set the tone for the global agenda in the new era. He points out that globalization has long been a central theme of the forum, including suggestions on how to design a new world financial infrastructure to avoid further international financial crises.

Among the seminars are some relating directly to Central and Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. One, featuring Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, will explore how the European Union can make a success of its eastwards enlargement.

Another, featuring Kazakh Prime Minister Kassymzhomart Tokaev and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, examines whether Caucasian and Central Asian trade development will follow the classic Silk Road to the Middle East, or whether instead the region will become a setting for big-power rivalry over oil and gas resources.

Another seminar, featuring UN special envoy to the Balkans Carl Bildt, will ask the question of how to break the vicious circle of violence and hatred in Kosovo and Bosnia.

With so many prominent people in Davos, security is paramount. Davos at forum time is always patrolled by heavily armed police. This year, unusually, the federal government in the Swiss capital Bern has granted a local request for a contingent of Swiss army troops. Davos police spokesman Alois Hafner confirmed that demonstrations may be expected:

"We are reckoning with the possibility of trouble."

This year's forum comes just two months after the collapse of the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in Seattle, which failed to reach agreement on new global trade talks.

Massive street demonstrations accompanied the unsuccessful wrangling inside that conference. Although by contrast Davos is a purely informal, private gathering, the presence of so many establishment political and business leaders attracts the attention of alternative groups.

Some anti-globalization activist groups have already said they will go to Davos. However, big-scale clashes like in Seattle are unlikely, because the few roads leading up to the resort will have roadblocks, and police are likely to start thorough checks if order appears threatened. As police spokesman Hafner puts it:

"For those attending the forum, there's no danger." The forum organizers, at any rate, are certainly hoping the event will run as smoothly as a Swiss watch.

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