The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden should not let the IMF throw a lifeline to Belarus’s dictator

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, speaks to a rally of his supporters in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 16, 2020. (Evgeny Maloletka/Bloomberg)
Comment

The United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union all have placed sanctions on the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus after his blatant theft of the 2020 election and violent suppression of protests. Sanctions have targeted not only government officials but also the moneyed industrialists who prop up Mr. Lukashenko. So it makes absolutely no sense that Belarus is about to collect about $1 billion in reserve assets from the International Monetary Fund.

Mr. Lukashenko lost the election last August to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya but declared himself the winner and forced her out of the country. His security forces responded to enormous mass demonstrations by arresting thousands and sending them to maltreatment and torture in Belarusian prisons. Mr. Lukashenko is an illegitimate despot whose people voted to turn him out of office. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it confirmed “allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair,” and that human rights abuses “were found to be massive and systematic and proven beyond doubt.”

The United States and its allies have correctly imposed sanctions that squeeze the sources of Mr. Lukashenko’s staying power, including the oil refining and potash industries. President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson both personally met Ms. Tikhanovskaya recently in a show of support. But there is more to be done.

On Aug. 23, the 190-member IMF is to distribute $650 billion in Special Drawing Rights, reserve assets intended to provide an economic cushion to nations weighed down by covid and debt burdens. This is a new issuance of SDRs and the largest in the IMF’s history, allocated by the size of each economy. Some authoritarian governments, such as Russia, China and Iran, qualify because the governments are broadly recognized by others. However, Venezuela will not be able to draw on the SDRs — many nations do not recognize President Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate leader and instead have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Myanmar, now ruled by a military junta that took control in a February coup, will also be unable to draw on them. Belarus can because most nations still recognize the Lukashenko government. The infusion will be a sizable boost for Belarus, which has only about $7.4 billion in international reserve assets, of which $3 billion is in foreign currencies.

The United States is the largest contributor and largest shareholder in the IMF, and a voting heavyweight. While it lacks sufficient votes alone to block the Belarus SDRs, the Biden administration should mobilize European and other allies — all members of the IMF — to demand a suspension of the funds. To release them now would dilute the impact of sanctions.

Mr. Lukashenko has spent decades balancing East and West in order to remain in power. Recently, after U.S. and British sanctions were imposed, he taunted, “You can choke on your sanctions.” The only answer is to keep up the pressure. All those who want to see democracy prevail in Belarus should hit the brakes on this misguided disbursement — and fast.

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