There’s a new trend in the blockchain space–in the past, individuals and independent firms were the ones coming under fire for using crypto as a means to avoid the law.
As crypto has grown into a formidable presence on a global scale, however, so have the entities behind the creation of cryptocurrencies (and some of the alleged illicit activities that they are being used for). Within the past several months, several nations have announced cryptocurrencies of their own.
While some of these projects have the expressed aim of bringing in new investors to their country’s economy, others seem to have been developed for less legitimate reasons–namely, the bypassing of international sanctions.
Could the Venezuelan Petro Be a Tool to Illicitly Access the International Debt Markets?
The Venezuelan government has been under fire from the international community as well as from some of its own citizens for the recent creation of the NEM-based Petro, a national cryptocurrency that is allegedly backed by ‘commodity reserves’ like oil and gold. While the Venezuelan government has marketed the Petro as a tool for bringing power back to the people and a solution to the nation’s financial crisis, the project has been criticized as a PR stunt and a tool for bypassing international sanctions.
Despite the fact that the Petro is the Venezuelan state cryptocurrency, bolivars (the Venezuelan national currency) could not be used to purchase the currency–participants in the sale were required to pay in US dollars or euros.
Of course, this significantly limits the ability of most Venezuelans to take part in the sale. Why couldn’t bolivars be used? Bloomberg reports that the reasons are ‘obvious’–since Venezuela has been barred from accessing international debt markets, the country is using the Petro as a way to bring in external funds and access credit under the guise of blockchain.
The international community isn’t fooled. The Petro “would appear to be an extension of credit to the Venezuelan government,” the US Treasury wrote in its Sanctions FAQ (item #551.) Those who purchase the coin “may be exposed to U.S. sanctions risk.”
Patrick Grey, CEO and Director of HashChain Technology, told Finance Magnates that while “It’s too early to be certain of the intentions,” the theory “makes sense.”
“The international community has placed many sanctions on Venezuela,” Grey continued, “and developing a government-sanctioned currency that can be traded coin-to-coin, coin-to-fiat (other countries), or coin-for-products is currently an easy option with no regulations inhibiting this right now.”
Economic Advisor to Putin: CryptoRuble Could Be Used “With No Regard for International Sanctions”
Talk of a Russian national cryptocurrency began all the way back in 2015, when Spanish news source El Mundo reported the proposal of the so-called ‘BitRuble’. Murmurs of the coin echoed throughout the country for several years.
When more official plans for the coin were announced in mid-October of 2017, Russian Minister of Communications Nikolai Nikiforov said: “I so confidently declare that we will launch a cryptoruble for one simple reason: if we do not, then in two months our neighbors in the Eurasian economic community will do it.”
Two months came and went. Finally, on January 28, 2018, RT reported that a draft bill that would introduce the CryptoRuble as an official means-of-payment in Russia was submitted to the Russian parliament.
Other than the bill, there is little sign of the CryptoRuble appearing on the scene anytime soon–however, the Russian Association of Cryptocurrency and Blockchain (RACIB) did announce that the CryptoRuble will make its debut in mid-2019.
In the world’s political, financial, and cultural spheres, Russia has gained a bit of a reputation as an unpredictable player on the global stage.
Therefore, it’s not exactly surprising that the CryptoRuble is not without controversy of its own. In early January of 2018, Sergei Glazev (an economic advisor to Vladimir Putin) said at a meeting: “This instrument [the CryptoRuble] suits us very well for sensitive activity on behalf of the state. We can settle accounts with our counterparties all over the world with no regard for sanctions.”
Though the statement was certainly shocking, Glazev did not provide any legal or technical information as to how or why the CryptoRuble would facilitate the circumvention of sanctions.
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North Korean Hackers’ Bloodlust for Bitcoin
North Korea has entered the world of crypto in a nefarious fashion. The United States government officially credited the North Korean regime with the ‘WannaCry’ malware episode that affected thousands of computers spread across more than 150 countries in December of 2017.
The accusation was made in a WSJ report written by Thomas P. Bossert, Trump’s homeland security advisor. “The [WannaCry] attack was widespread and cost billions, and North Korea is directly responsible,” he wrote. “We do not make this allegation lightly. It is based on evidence. We are not alone with our findings, either.”
But why exactly would North Korea be interested in acquiring crypto? Daniel Taylor, CEO of BlocSlide Sports Ltd., told Finance Magnates that one thing seems to be perfectly clear: “The anonymous nature of transactions using certain cryptocurrencies is attractive to anyone wishing to move money discreetly, and I think that’s a driving force behind North Korean interest.”
The North Korean regime could also be using crypto as a source of revenue for government functions. “Since the U.S. placed sanctions against North Korea in April 2017, North Korea is using cryptocurrencies to fund is military, and partake in cyber crimes against its neighboring nations,” Taylor wrote.
Taylor said that since evidence of Bitcoin hacks by the North Korean regime extends to May of this year, the NK government could have multiplied more than tenfold. Therefore, it’s possible that “their military purchasing/funding power has increased exponentially, and that has had a significant impact on the international political climate.”
Taylor also pointed out that the North Korean government’s interest in hacking crypto may be due to the fact that the industry is so new, and therefore ripe for the picking: “Not all of these individuals and institutions have the necessary security and [therefore] are vulnerable to hacking.”
Iran Joins the Party
Iran made headlines around the world earlier this week when it became one of the latest additions to the growing list of nations that are seeking to create their own national cryptocurrencies.
Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi tweeted: “In a meeting with the board of directors of Post Bank on digital currencies based on the blockchain, I … prescribed … measures to implement the country’s first cloud-based digital currency.” (Translated.)
در جلسهای که با هیئت مدیره پست بانک در خصوص ارزهای دیجیتال مبتنی بر زنجیره بلوکی داشتم، مقرر شد این بانک اقدامات لازم برای پیاده سازی آزمایشی اولین ارز دیجیتالی کشور را با استفاده از ظرفیت نخبگان کشور به عمل آورد. مدل آزمایشی برای بررسی و تایید به نظام بانکی کشور ارائه خواهد شد.
— MJ Azari Jahromi (@azarijahromi) February 21, 2018
However, as reported by Futurism, the Central Bank of Iran released a statement shortly after the tweet was published saying that it would not be pursuing the development of a national cryptocurrency.
During a recent visit to Honduras, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters: “If Russia is going to continue to cover for Iran then the U.S. and our partners need to take action on our own. If we’re not going to get action on the council then we have to take our own actions.” She did not specify what the “actions” would be, but further sanctions are certainly a strong candidate.
While the intention to evade international sanctions was never explicitly stated, the timing of the announcement in conjunction with the Trump administration’s threats of “action” against Iran could be evidence that the country is seeking to operate outside of legal jurisdiction.
If Crypto Projects Are Intended to Avoid Sanctions, There’s Work to Be Done
Rob Viglione, CEO of ZenCash, pointed out that there are some major logistical operations to overcome if nations are, in fact, developing these cryptocurrencies to bypass sanctions: “Unless these governments intend to be the world’s biggest HODLers of cryptocurrency, they would need to convert right back into fiat at scales that aren’t necessarily convenient without raising standard anti-money laundering concerns.”
Despite this obstacle, however, the power of these governments shouldn’t be underestimated.