About two years ago, in February, 1990, in Moscow, on my way home to Helsinki, having just attended the last World Peace Council (WPC) Congress, I ran into a Dutch acquaintance with whom I discussed the organization’s future prospects. My prognosis was pessimistic. I likened the WPC to a deceased person whose hair and nails continued to grow although the brain had ceased functioning.
I expected my friend to take issue with me and was surprised when he didn’t. “You’re right, it’s like a corpse left frozen in the morgue,” he began, then after pausing added, “all the same they’re not ready to bury it.” Although spoken in the traditional coded language common in WPC circles, the remark was obvious enough. “They” was the Soviet Peace Committee who were not prepared to stop funding. As someone who worked in the WPC’s Lönnrotinkatu Street Secretariat in Helsinki for four years, I wondered about that.
Since rebuilding the WPC as a viable peace organization was not one of the Soviet Peace Committee’s motives—they had tried that and failed miserably in the late 1980s—there must have been other factors at play. But what?
Unable, and worse, unwilling to change the fundamental political bankruptcy of the organization without giving up their tight control, the SPC found themselves in something of a mess.
First of all by the mid-1980s the Soviet Peace Committee had, for the most part, already concluded that the WPC was a politically expendable and spent force. Especially after 1986 when Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev began to change, the SPC (and other former Eastern European peace committees) had built up an impressive series of bilateral international contacts in which the WPC not only played no role, but was a liability. It cannot be accidental that during his seven years in power, not only did Gorbachev not meet with WPC President Romesh Chandra, but that Chandra was purposely excluded from many of the main Moscow international fora.
Secondly, the WPC had absorbed untold millions of dollars of Soviet hard currency over the years, and if you’ll pardon my English, pissed it away. A close investigation of the WPC financial record would have revealed at the very least, colossal waste as Romesh Chandra had fine tuned the art of spending Soviet hard currency ever faster and with fewer results. The lion’s share of it went to enormous junket “peace congresses” at one or another Eastern “palaces of culture,” or to ostentatious WPC visits to the United Nations in New York, Geneva or Vienna, producing an endless stream of appeals, declarations and the like but few more tangible results.
By the late 1900s the World Peace Council was one of a number of Moscow-created political cesspools waiting to be discovered. Any long-term review of the finances could have had serious repercussions for the people involved, especially in the USSR where people had given generously of their money for what they thought to be a cause for peace.
At a time when, for the first time in years, Soviet public organizations such as the SPC were coming under close public scrutiny, and when already, hard currency transfers to the West were more closely monitored by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s international department, the situation in the WPC spelled trouble for the Soviet Peace Committee-especially those involved in WPC events.
Despite this, the SPC did not want the WPC to die completely. Undeterred by the organization’s political and economic nationalization if not irrelevance, the SPC slashed expenses and staff, but opted to keep the ghostship of Lönnrotinkatu barely alive for future use. Even in its weakest state, it could be a valuable gateway to the West.
At the February, 1990 Athens session, the SPC brought on as a new Executive Secretary, a Chandra ally from New Zealand’s tiny Marxist-Leninist party, Ray Stewart. Chandra had originally brought him to Helsinki to bolster his effort against the reform element within the Secretariat. Stewart’s charge has essentially boiled down to keeping the near-shadow organization afloat at the lowest possible cost.
Whatever might be said of him, Chandra gave life and verve to the WPC circus, at least bringing the world the rhetoric of international peace (minus the content). That life died in Athens when Chandra was forced out of the daily running of the organization, being kicked upstairs and made WPC honorary president for life with full pay and benefits.
The catabolic processes that followed have left the WPC a shadow of its former self. What appears to be the only makeup left on this corpse is a bimonthly Peace News Bulletin put out by former WPC Secretary member from the Federal Republic of Germany, Tobias Thomas.
A number of remaining Communist Parties-the French, Greek and Japanese-seemed willing to go along with all this and to squeeze what was left from WPC contacts on the condition that they not have to share any of the financial burdens of maintaining the organization. On this point they were adamant. While the Japanese have been involved, it has been rather cautiously. When the Greek CP split down the middle (about a year ago), the WPC’s base was further weakened. That leaves the French Communists who seem committed to sticking it out until the bitter end, and then some.
Meanwhile, the peace and left movement of the host country, Finland, pretty much lost interest in WPC affairs, as did most serious peace movements the world round.
It was not unreasonable to conclude that with the August, 1991 coup attempt, the banning of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the freezing of its accounts and foreign holdings, the WPC would do the only proper thing under the circumstances and simply sink into the mire of history. No so. Defying gravity, it continues to limp along and will do so for some time in the future. Its survival has been assured by don’t hold your breath -the former Soviet Peace Committee.
An internal WPC document the summary of the minutes of the WPC’s Standing Committee Meeting in Brazzaville, Congo from July 15-17, 1991 was the basis of a fascinating article written by Tapio Kari in the November 1, 1991 Viikolehti, the weekend edition of Kansan Uutiset, the newspaper of the Finnish Communist Party and the third largest newspaper in the country.
As it has been for much of its history, even now after the collapse of the USSR, WPC finances remain shrouded in mystery. A last ditch attempt to open them up, a resolution introduced at the Athens Congress for an external audit, was defeated. Even those of us who worked there for some time have far from a complete picture of how finances functioned. According to the Kansan Uutiset article the WPC now largely survives as a recipient of interest from a mysterious fund established sometime in the Spring of 1991 by a one-time large donation from the then Soviet Peace Committee to the WPC. The annual interest amounts to some 765,000 Finnish Marks (approximately $180,000 Canadian).
Interviewed by Kari in late October 1991, in classic WPC form, WPC Executive Director Ray Stewart was less than thrilled to address the subject. But he did admit that (!) the SPC gift to the WPC amounted to “around” 10,000,000 Finnish Marks (close to $2.2 million Canadian).(2) The gift making up the fund came “mostly” from the former Socialist countries.
The WPC report from the Brazzaville meeting added some details the gift was given to the WPC in May, 1991; only “ten member organizations” out of over 140 which the WPC once boasted have paid their dues for 1991. Without the Soviet gift, the WPC would have simply collapsed, the office closed down.
More interesting was the fate of the 10 million mark contribution. A yet-to be-identified fund was established. Quoting from the WPC Brazzaville Standing Committee (July 15, 1991) Meeting Minutes, “At the same time in May (when the Soviet financial gift was given) an independent fund was established, the interest from which will be given to the WPC (at the discretion of the trustees) and will provide the basis for the continuing work of the Liaison Office (formerly called the Secretariat): liaison, networking, information activities. (The capital of this fund is not available to the WPC.)”
Little is known about the fund or its trustees, fueling more speculation. The fund is not registered either in Finland, where the WPC is based, or in Russia or another part of the former USSR. The number or names of the trustees remains unknown except for one—Stewart himself. I would hope that no one in North America associated with the WPC would be foolish enough to get caught in this maze by lending their name as one of “the trustees.”
The timing of this transfer which is very possibly more than 10 million Finnish marks is also interesting. It came when many Soviet organizations, institutions tied to the dying CPSU, had been transferring money to the West in anticipation of a possible collapse of the USSR. Finnish sources suggest as much as 50-60 billion rubles were thus converted to hard currency and transferred to a plethora of accounts largely in Western European banks.
It is impossible that such massive transfers of funds could have been done without the participation of powerful ruling interests in the former USSR. That this was taking place before the August 1991 coup raises all kinds of questions of who participated in what and why.
Just how the Soviet Peace Committee, WPC, or like organizations were involved, or what role they played in these transfers is not clear at present. Perhaps it was the possibility of using the WPC as future conduits for money being transferred West from Moscow by the CPSU to keep it out of Boris Yeltsin’s hands that was behind “not burying the body”—as my acquaintance put it, several years ago.
Stewart rejects such allegations, insisting that the gin was “old money” i.e. money earmarked for the WPC in the past, that had been in WPC accounts for at least nine months and that the sudden swelling of the WPC’s budget has nothing to do with the USSR’s breakdown or black market money traffic from Eastern Europe to the West.
But why then the continued secrecy even as the organization enters an advanced stage of necrotization? What is there left to hide?
One thing is certain, whatever the WPC is doing, active peace work hardly enters into the picture. The Cold War is over, the WPC has long been a spent force. The one tangible contribution the WPC might still make is to finally open its records before it closes its doors permanently.
Rob Prince served as U.S. representative to the Secretariat of the World Peace Council from 1986 to 1990. He now lives in Denver, Colorado.