Russia's established church wants to set up a new banking system to help people through the financial crisis. But, Fiona Clark asks, whose interests would the bank really serve? And can it be trusted?
It's hard to get a loan in Russia these days. Banks are lending less, and if you do manage to get one you'll pay through the nose for it. Interest charged on a personal loan is close to 20 percent, and a mortgage is charged at about 14.5 percent. With the ruble's value dwindling and purchasing power shrinking along with it, the Russian Orthodox Church is renewing its push for a new financial system to be introduced, similar to that used in Islamic countries.
In essence the church would run a bank that gives loans to individuals based on their personal needs and it would charge them no interest on the amount borrowed. To fund the free loans, the church's bank would use the money given to it by lenders or shareholders to trade on the financial markets or make investments in businesses, as long as those dealings were in line with the church's beliefs - so no financing of ventures involving gambling, prostitution or drugs. Investors in the system would share the risk and the profits.
The church has been advocating its Orthodox Financial System since the financial crisis of the 1990s, but now the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has expressed its support for scheme. Following a meeting between its chairman, Sergei Katyrin, and the Orthodox cleric Vsevolod Chaplin, who is driving the project, it issued a statement saying it was "ready to provide its platform for detailed and professional discussion of these questions."
The Orthodox Church has had its hands burnt once before when it comes to the banking sector. In the 1990's it was involved with a bank called "Old Bank," which later became Sofrino. It was run by a group of men with who were very close to the late Patriarch Alexy II and the current head of the church, Kirill.
Sofrino handled the church's assets and money given by the state and other sources for the restoration of churches. It also dabbled in loans and investments. But over the years things went horribly wrong and according to the Bank of Russia's press service its license was revoked in 2014 because it had almost four times more debt than assets. It was declared bankrupt and put into receivership. The former owners and management were referred to the prosecutor general's office for investigation for "criminal offense," its press release said.
So, that's not off to a good start.
But surely the church could at least be trusted to make sound ethical decisions for the common good and should be given a second chance? Well, if its past history is anything to go by, that may not necessarily be the case.
Prior to becoming the patriarch, Kirill, a former KGB agent, was exploiting the church's tax-free status by importing alcohol and cigarettes and selling them at lower than market value prices. According to Forbes magazine "In 1995, the Nikolo-Ugreshky Monastery, which is directly subordinated to the patriarchate, earned $350 million from the sale of alcohol. The patriarchate's department of foreign church relations, which Kirill ran, earned $75 million from the sale of tobacco. But the patriarchate reported an annual budget in 1995-1996 of only $2 million." The antics earned Kirill the moniker of 'Tobacco Metropolitan.'
In 2006 Kirill's personal wealth was estimated to be $4 billion, and in 2012 he was seen sporting a $30,000 watch. Initially the church Photoshopped the offending timepiece off his wrist but forgot to remove its reflection from the shiny table he was sitting at.
Church critics had a field day, declaring the 'disappearing watch' a 'miracle.' Kirill had denied wearing it but was later forced to admit it was his. He claimed it was a gift from a wealthy friend and that it had been sold and the money given to charity. Yes, miracles can happen.
It's a nice idea to offer free loans to the cash-strapped, but, according to the church, its main role would be facilitating loans between investors rather than the usual consumer loans. And, from a moneymaking point of view, that makes sense.
These days there's no real money in consumer banking. The major banks make their money trading in investments, currencies, derivatives and hedge funds - which look remarkably like gambling with other people's money, but are usually described as high-risk investments.
Given its track record, the church might be good at that, but I'm not really sure how that will help the average Russian looking for a loan. I'm sure someone, somewhere will benefit though.
Fiona Clark is an Australian journalist currently living in Russia. She started her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a TV reporter in the mid-1980s. She has spent the past 10 years working on publications such as The Lancet and Australian Doctor and consumer health websites. This is her second stint in Moscow, having worked there from 1990-92. What was to be a two-year posting is still continuing.