Opaque financial flows from authoritarian influencers undermine the rule of law and democratic governance in recipient countries.



The extraordinary growth of international trade and investment is a defining feature of globalization. In this enabling environment, authoritarians wield state-owned and nominally private economic entities as political instruments. The state-capture systems mastered by oligarchs while building power and influence at home are being deployed abroad and used by authoritarian powers to gain a foothold in strategic markets such as energy, telecommunications, and banking. 

Authoritarian “corrosive capital” is enabled by weak legal safeguards and limited accountability and transparency mechanisms. The openness of the international financial system also makes it difficult to identify linkages to authoritarian actors who can easily route funds through firms registered under beneficial ownership accounts in third-party countries.

Sharp Power Influence

Autocratic actors leverage capital to exaggerate governance gaps and influence economic, political, and social developments in recipient countries through multiple mechanisms : 

  • State-sponsored loans that mimic traditional development assistance
  • Support for large-scale infrastructure projects that rope countries into long-term, lopsided economic relationships
  • Foreign direct investment by nominally private firms that are ultimately linked to an authoritarian state-backed entity
  • Restricted market access that induces foreign companies to tout authoritarian narratives and censor content deemed unfavorable

These efforts are not necessarily predicated on huge amounts of money but instead stem from strategically-focused agreements with well-connected elites in strategic sectors of open societies.

Corrosive capital hides amid layers of larger exchanges with authoritarian regimes, the majority of which may appear legitimate and can have a financial, political, or cultural character. As established democracies and their private sectors come to grips with the threat posed by strategic corruption, democracies with less developed institutional frameworks for preventing corruption and providing transparency are at an even greater risk. 

The Kremlin’s ability to wield state-owned and nominally private economic entities as political instruments, swiftly and without visible deliberation, has allowed it to achieve outsized global influence.

Ruslan Stefanov and Martin Vladimirov

Deals in the Dark: Russian Corrosive Capital in Latin America

Democratic Responses

Civil society can help bolster the institutions and accountability mechanisms needed for a strong defense against authoritarian corrosive capital.

Norms and Standard Setting
  • Private sector firms should adopt business strategies that prevent authoritarian actors from inducing the revision of public statements, the sanctioning of employees, the alteration of maps, and the like.
  • Businesses should weigh the reputational risks associated with censoring content, especially when authoritarian demands conflict with the expectations of their consumers. 
Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • National security agencies, antitrust authorities, and financial market regulators should strengthen their capacity to investigate money-laundering activities in cooperation with civil society and whistleblowers. 
  • Civil society activists, think tank analysts, and investigative journalists can collaborate to follow financial flows and study negotiations, agreements, and transactions in local settings. 
Education and Awareness
  • Civil society-led efforts to expose domestic and foreign state-capture practices are an effective check on corrosive capital inflows linked to large-scale infrastructure projects or strategic mergers and acquisitions.


The reporting and analysis catalogued in the Portal illustrates how authoritarian powers compromise the integrity of civic institutions in countries around the world through corrosive capital agreements and opaque investments.

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Source: Jerusalem Post

Publication Date: September 28, 2023

Sweden Accuses Iran of Targeted ‘Misinformation’ about Quran Burnings

Authoritarian Country: Iran, Russia

Affected Region: Europe, Sweden

Author: Seth J. Frantzman

View Resource: Sweden Accuses Iran of Targeted ‘Misinformation’ about Quran Burnings

Iran and Russia-backed disinformation campaigns have used recent Quran burnings to manipulate sentiments in Sweden. Fearing the effects of these malign efforts, the Swedish government has tasked its Agency for Psychological Defense with countering these campaigns.

Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute

Publication Date: September 18, 2023

China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Politics Over Economics

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Felix K. Chang

View Resource: China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Politics Over Economics

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been expected to enter a new phase following the PRC’s Third BRI Forum in October 2023. With over 150 countries participating in the BRI, China’s plans for its signature initiative have appeared increasingly political and less focused on infrastructure development.

Source: Middle East Institute

Publication Date: September 2, 2023

Iran Gleefully Eyes the Protests in Israel, Looking for Weaknesses to Exploit

Authoritarian Country: Iran

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, Israel

Author: Jason M. Brodsky

View Resource: Iran Gleefully Eyes the Protests in Israel, Looking for Weaknesses to Exploit

In addition to violent intervention through proxy militia groups, Iran has used cyber interference to exacerbate political rifts in Israeli society and advance Iranian interests. Iran-backed disinformation campaigns have misled high-level officials and target Israelis across the political spectrum.

Source: Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Publication Date: October 30, 2023

HispanTV Is Iran’s Propaganda Arm in Latin America; Why Is It Still Being Broadcast?

Authoritarian Country: Iran

Affected Region: Latin America and the Caribbean

Author: Emanuele Ottolenghi, Marina Rosenberg

View Resource: HispanTV Is Iran’s Propaganda Arm in Latin America; Why Is It Still Being Broadcast?

HispanTV, Iran’s Spanish-language media outlet, has spread disinformation to influence global narratives surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict. The state of Iran has used HispanTV as a platform to defend Hamas, espouse antisemitic rhetoric, and glorify violence.

Source: The Diplomat

Publication Date: October 17, 2023

Indonesia, China Vow to Expand Economic Cooperation

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Indonesia

Author: Sebastian Strangio

View Resource: Indonesia, China Vow to Expand Economic Cooperation

The third Belt and Road Forum, in October 2023, demonstrated that many Southeast Asian leaders see China as the key to their nations’ prosperity, helping them to build infrastructure and adopt new technologies. That dependence may discourage leaders from challenging China’s anti-democratic rhetoric.

Source: New York Times

Publication Date: October 11, 2018

Museums Forced to Reassess Saudi Ties Amid Uproar Over Journalist’s Fate

Authoritarian Country: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates

Affected Region: North America, United States

Author: Robin Pogrebin, Sopan Deb

View Resource: Museums Forced to Reassess Saudi Ties Amid Uproar Over Journalist’s Fate

Prominent New York museums have accepted funding from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi governments, even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and despite labor concerns in the UAE. Most museums maintained these relationships after the murder, allowing the regimes’ influence to persist unchecked.


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