Wednesday, May 05, 2004

What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?

I've been curious, not to say outraged, at finding the Russian Orthodox Church among beneficiaries of the UN Oil for Food scam.

Here's how it worked:
The scheme is alleged to have worked like this: individuals and organizations sympathetic to the Iraqi regime, or those just easily bribed were offered oil contracts through the Oil for Food program. These contracts for Iraqi oil could then be sold on the open world market and the seller was allowed to keep a transaction fee, said to be between $.15 and $.30, for every barrel of oil they sold. The seller was then to refund the Iraqi government a certain percentage of the commission.

Contracts to sell Iraq humanitarian goods through the Oil For Food program were alleged to have been given to companies and individuals based on their willingness to kickback a certain percentage of the contract profits to the Iraqi regime. Companies that sold commodities via the oil for food program were supposedly overcharging by up to 10%, with part of the overcharged amount being diverted into private bank accounts for Saddam Hussein and other regime officials and the other part being kept by the supplier.

According to the allegations, the involvement of the UN itself in the scandal began in February after the name of Benon Sevan, executive director of the Oil-for-Food program, appeared on the Iraqi Oil Ministry's documents. Sevan allegedly was given vouchers for at least 11 million barrels of oil, worth some $3.5 billion.

The idea of the Oil for Food program was to protect the innocent citizens of Iraq from the effects of the economic sanctions against Saddam. By bypassing the requirements of the program, the entities enriched themselves, took bread and medicine from the poor and may have helped fund terrorists around the world.

Claudia Rosett summarizes the scam this way:
It worked like this. Saddam would sell at below-market prices to his hand-picked customers—the Russians and the French were special favorites--and they could then sell the oil to third parties at a fat profit. Part of this profit they would keep, part they would kick back to Saddam as a "surcharge," paid into bank accounts outside the UN program, in violation of UN sanctions.

By means of this scam, Saddam’s regime ultimately skimmed off for itself billions of dollars in proceeds that were supposed to have been spent on relief for the Iraqi people. When the scheme was reported in the international press--in November 2000, for example, Reuters carried a long dispatch about Saddam’s demands for a 50-cent premium over official UN prices on every barrel of Iraqi oil--the UN haggled with Saddam but did not stop it.

Here's where Russian involvement comes in:
The leaked Iraqi list of about 270 recipients covers just one year — 1999 — and relates to just one facet of the overall fraud: That is "vouchers" that could be sold by the bearers to legitimate oil brokers and shippers, who then would have the right to purchase and market the Iraqi crude.

Russia, which ardently opposed the war, has by far the most entries on the list, including 1.366 billion barrels allotted to the Russian government alone.

A score of giant Russian oil firms, several Kremlin ministries and even the Russian Orthodox Church are listed as having received the vouchers. The church and many of the companies in question have denied wrongdoing.

I guess that depends on what the meaning of "wrongdoing" is. Is Patriarch Alexei likely to travel the road of Martha Stewart? Probably not. DId the scam participants profit off Saddam's cruel regime? Yes. Did the participants, especially the churches ("At the Vatican, the Rev. Jean Marie Benjamin -- a French priest who is reported to have arranged a meeting between the pope and Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister of Iraq -- is listed as receiving the rights to sell 4.5 million barrels"), undermine their messages of "give peace a chance" with a subtext of "give us a chance to bring in a few more $millions before turning that barbarian out of office"?

With that question ringing, I have a hard time reading this statement from Patriarch Alexei without snorting:
The Russian Orthodox Church undertook efforts to establish dialogue with Iraqi leaders. Right before the beginning of the military campaign our delegation, together with Russian Muslims, made a trip to Baghdad on a peace mission. That trip demonstrated the solidarity of Russian believers with the Iraqi people and showed that the use of force cannot be explained in terms of Christian-Muslim tensions, that this conflict lacks religious roots. However, our efforts turned out to be in vain. The war machine had already been set in motion.

What's the connection, and how did the Russian Orthodox Church get into Saddam's pocket? Better reporters than I am are trying to get at the information before Kofi Annan and his cronies destroy it, but I note that Benon Sevan, UN undersecretary and the one who turned the program more and more to shady doings, is a Greek Cypriot (probably Orthodox Christian), who was invited, along with Sergey Lavrov, Russian ambassador to the UN, to speak at a joint SCOBA (American Eastern Orthodox) and Oriental Orthodox prayer service in 2002 (page 7 of the PDF file). I suspect that it's a small world among the Orthodox delegates at the UN.

So far, the Russian Orthodox Church has denied receiving anything from Saddam. It's possible, I suppose, and I hope it's true. But the source of the information, a handwritten spreadsheet in Arabic, found among Saddam's records, looks hard to evade:
The list reads like an official registry of Friends of Saddam across some 50 countries. It's clear where his best, best friends were. . . . Other notables include Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri (also listed separately as the "daughter of President Sukarno"), the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Russian Orthodox Church, the "director of the Russian President's office" and former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua. Some--including Mr. Pasqua, the Russian Church and Ms. Megawati--have denied receiving anything from Saddam.

A translation of the list has the Russian Orthodox Church receiving vouchers for 5 million barrels, a small portion of the 1,366 billion barrels that went to Russia, but a considerable amount at $25 per barrel. I find myself wondering who bought the Christ the Savior Cathedral. The restoration of the cathedral cost more than $200 million, and Nathaniel Davis at George Fox University writes a long piece about corruption, mismanagement and shady dealings in the Russian Orthodox Church. He's not Orthodox, but he's not hostile, and the "tribulations, trials and troubles" he lists are well documented and mostly brought on the Church by decisions of her own hierarchy.

I suppose it's unrealistic to expect the church of Sts. Boris and Gleb, St. Sergius of Radonezh, and the martyr Alexander Men, the church who gave America St. Herman and companions, to live up to its patrimony.

Stephen Sherman's Friends of Saddam blog is dedicated to following the Oil for Food scandal, and it will probably be years before we get to the bottom of it, if ever.

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