Why is the IMF funding dictators?

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Pavel Orlovsky/BelTA photo via AP)

On August 23 last year, 250,000 people marched through Minsk protesting dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s self-declared victory in the sham elections held earlier that month. Then, exactly one year later, the IMF announced that it was awarding Lukashenko’s government $1 billion, undermining the sanctions that Western governments have imposed on the regime for offenses including hijacking a Ryanair flight to arrest the young journalist Roman Protasevich.

 
What could Belarus do with the money?
 

The money given to Belarus is ostensibly “to combat this unprecedented [COVID-19] crisis,” according to IMF officials, but it’s doubtful that the money will actually help anyone but Lukashenko. Apparently acknowledging Lukashenko’s carte blanche, the IMF issued a press release shirking culpability for any abuses to come from the money, stating: “the decision on how best to use [it] rests with our member countries.” Dictators like Lukashenko understand that they’re being given license to spend the money in whatever manner they please.


Since Lukashenko stands to be the greatest beneficiary of the IMF’s policies, we can expect that the people of Belarus will be the greatest victims. Unfortunately, this practice follows the pattern of the IMF’s past missteps. A 2008 study found that IMF funding of oppressive regimes “increased government use of torture and extra judicial killing and also worsened the overall human rights conditions in developing countries.” Another study found that IMF aid tends to increase political stability in dictatorial regimes, preventing democratic reform from taking place. 
 

But why does the IMF fund dictators in the first place?
 

The IMF tends not to consider the brutality of a sitting regime when deciding if it will grant funds. Instead, the organization looks at whether or not the regime has international recognition. Thankfully, that means that the IMF is withholding money from the Taliban––for the moment. Given the IMF’s track record, that policy seems liable to change. The organization has demonstrated a disturbing willingness to authorize loans to authoritarian regimes, with 12 of its 33 current long-term lending partners classified as “not free” in Freedom House’s most recent metrics.


These policies rely on a decades-old falsehood: that the average citizen living under a dictatorship is more likely to benefit from the government receiving money than the dictator himself. In reality, the IMF is giving Lukashenko greater authority to quash Belarusian freedom. After all, why would a dictator like Lukashenko––whose sole interest is maintaining power––accept IMF money if it weren’t bolstering his control of Belarus? The main opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, knows this all too well, and tweeted that “Deals with [Lukashenko’s regime] mean more terror against Belarusians & threats to other nations.” 


If the free world wants to help Belarusians, it requires cutting off aid to Lukashenko’s government. Even well-intentioned grants do far more harm than good when the money flows directly to the ruling government with no strings attached. The IMF claims it’s funding COVID recovery in Belarus, but it’s really supporting state-sponsored tyranny. Belarusians might be more free than Afghans under the Taliban, but the IMF’s policies should be the same: no money can be put in the pocket of illegitimate autocrats. 

Listen to our Audio Newsletter

The same stories, in audio format.

Narration: Writing & Policy Associate James Lewis