The Moonies in Moscow: a second coming?

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — For most of the world's people, arms manufacturers excepted, the end of the Cold War came as a relief. But for the Reverend Moon Sun Myung, the leader of a Korea-based religious sect, it was a disaster.

Citizens of many countries have now encountered Moon's "Unification Church". Although the sect is obviously well funded, few who come in contact with it appreciate that it is the public face of a major corporate empire.

With the help of his followers' donations and labour, Moon has built up an international business conglomerate with interests ranging from weapons production and trading to machine tool production, agriculture, fisheries, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and banking. Estimates of the size of this empire range up to US$5 billion.

Over decades, Moon sought to acquire respectability for his sect through virulent anticommunism. According to his preaching, the USSR was dominated by Satan. Fervent attacks on the political left served to disguise Moon's personal program — strong support for authoritarian government.

As the French journalist J.F. Boiye wrote in The Empire of Moon: "The aim is to anathematise democracy. The return to detente and achievement of international agreement on disarmament problems destroy the Moonist strategy and deprive them of all they have accumulated."

With the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moon's anticommunism lost much of its camouflage value. There was, however, the compensating possibility of being able to expand his operations into Russia — both with the bible, and with business.

One of Moon's schemes in Russia during the early 1990s was reportedly to rent Red Square for a mass wedding ceremony of the type practised by his sect in many cities around the world, in which scores and perhaps hundreds of couples — selected for one another by church leaders, and introduced only a few days previously — are married simultaneously.

This plan came to nothing. The most that was achieved was that Moon's wife was allowed to broadcast from the stage of the Kremlin Palace of Congresses.

Following this rebuff, Moon's ambitions in Russia seem to have waned for some years. He returned to his habitual policy of attacking the former Satanic empire. But now, there are signs that the attractions of investing in Russia — financially, and no doubt spiritually as well — may have whetted his appetites again.

To understand Moon's Russian strategy of recent times, it is necessary to appreciate that his sect has a major interest in a US newspaper, the Washington Times. If the name of this publication sounds familiar, that is not accidental.

Two of the flagships of reputable newspaper publishing in the US are the Washington Post and the New York Times. The founders of the Washington Times took the first word from the one name, and the second word from the other, leaving many people hopelessly confused as to which newspaper they were reading or seeing quoted. Meanwhile the physical appearance of Moon's US press organ, with its broadsheet format and black-letter masthead, was chosen to create an aura of journalistic professionalism and probity.

But the Washington Times is quite unlike the two traditionally liberal newspapers on whose reputations it falsely trades. As US journalist Alicia Mondy notes, the paper serves as "the tribune of anti-democrats, fans of Ronald Reagan, military lobbies and ... before the fall of communism, hot supporters of the cold war".

Its journalistic practices are anything but scrupulous. Washington Times stories often rest heavily on "secret CIA reports" which other journalists are persistently unable to verify.

To rouse the ire of the Washington Times is to risk becoming the target of petty (and sometimes not so petty) slander-mongering. In one episode, the paper set out to brand Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski as an alcoholic, stating that while in Washington he had smelled of vodka.

How little real backing the paper had for its story is suggested by the fact that some of the main "evidence" it cited was a joke that Kwasniewski allegedly made during a visit to Siberia. The Polish president is supposed to have remarked that Lake Baikal had everything to go with whisky — ice and water.

Another recent Washington Times story related that a minibus used by Russian peacekeepers in Bosnia, near the US headquarters in Tuzla, was equipped with tape recording equipment — and that this had been discovered by US counterintelligence agents.

Unfortunately for the paper, the US authorities swiftly refuted the charge of electronic surveillance. At a briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Kenneth Bacon explained that the minibus was used by Russian troops to provide communications between the US headquarters and the command of a Russian paratroop brigade, as well as communications with the Russian military leadership in Moscow.

"There are no armed guards near the bus and American officers have free access to it, as well as to all files, briefings, exchanges of information, including information of the intelligence services", Bacon stated.

Curiously, given Moon's fervent anticommunism, the target of some of the Washington Times' most bitter recent attacks has been the most developed and prosperous sector of Russia's new capitalist economy — the country's banking industry.

For more than a year, the newspaper has been running a campaign against such pillars of the Russian financial world as Menatep, Stolichny, Inkombank, MostBank and others. Heavy with references to "CIA information", the Washington Times stories have concentrated on trying to draw a picture of close links between Russia's largest banks and the country's criminal underworld.

The charges of mafia takeovers have become especially strident whenever a Russian bank has wanted to take a step into the west. This was the experience of MostBank when it set out to open an office in London, and also of Stolichny Savings Bank.

It is hardly news that Russian criminals would like to move in on their country's banking industry; in recent years at least 10 Russian bankers have fallen victim to hired killers. Correspondingly, it would be naive to think that the criminals' efforts have not had an impact, especially on small and ill-protected banks.

But the conclusion that the Washington Times has set out to implant is something quite different: that the Russian banking system, including its largest players, has fallen overwhelmingly under criminal control. The strong consensus of business analysts, both in Russia and the west, is that such a picture is wildly exaggerated.

So why would the anticommunist Moon, and the unreconstructed cold warriors of the Washington Times, serve the communists' purposes by falsely painting the centrepiece of Russia's new capitalism as a den of mafiosi?

Part of the reason, no doubt, is that the motives of the Washington Times are as much chauvinist as ideological — that is, anti-Russian as well as anticommunist. But other, equally crude, impulses also seem to be at play.

However devoted they are to capitalism, Moon and the circles in the US that push their views through the Washington Times clearly don't relish competition when it limits their own profits and investment opportunities. And Moon, it should be remembered, has banking interests of his own.

Not only is Moon opposed to Russian banks extending their operations outside of Russia, but his attacks on the Russian banking industry may also mean that his move into Russia, postponed since the early 1990s, is about to occur.

Are "Moonie" proselytisers, bearing their message of salvation on their characteristic sandwich-boards, now to become a familiar presence on Moscow's Arbat shopping mall? Are Russian believers, like Korean ones, to be married by the stadium-full to near strangers?

While answers to these questions emerge, observers of Russia and its economy should be warned: treat any news that comes from Moon, or from the Washington Times, with extreme caution.