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Russia and Venezuela's Plan to Sidestep Sanctions: Virtual Currencies

Russian and Venezuelan officials are hoping virtual currencies can help their countries make an end run around American sanctions.

Both governments, with ambitions to create state-sponsored cryptocurrencies, are looking to take advantage of the promise that Bitcoin introduced to the world financial system: a new kind of money and financial infrastructure, outside the control of any central authority, particularly the United States.

The Russian and Venezuelan plans may sound outlandish, even in the financial Wild West of Bitcoin and its online competitors. But they underscore how the rise of virtual currencies is pushing governments around the world to rethink the most basic elements of their own currencies and financial infrastructure.

What has seemed like a fringe concept is starting to gain some level of acceptance in global finance. Several of the largest central banks in the world, including the Bank of England and the People's Bank of China, have said they are looking at using the technology introduced by Bitcoin to track and issue their own digital currencies.

In Venezuela, the idea has come from the top. President Nicolás Maduro laid out a plan last month to create a homegrown digital currency known as the Petro, which would be similar to Bitcoin but backed by the government's oil and natural resources.

In Russia, officials under President Vladimir V. Putin have floated the idea of a Bitcoin-like crypto ruble.

"When it comes to state-sensitive types of activities, this instrument suits us very well," one of Mr. Putin's aides, Sergei Glazyev, said last month in a conversation about the crypto ruble, according to several Russian news outlets. "We can settle payments with our business partners all over the world regardless of sanctions."

Economists and virtual currency experts have given Venezuela's Petro and the crypto ruble from Russia low probabilities of working in the way the governments seem to anticipate. That's because Bitcoin and other virtual currencies are decentralized systems with no one in charge, while the Russian and Venezuelan plans would give the leaders of both countries a measure of control over the new currencies.

That runs counter to some of the most basic concepts of virtual currency.

All Bitcoin transactions are recorded on a ledger known as the blockchain, which is maintained by many independent computers. The system was designed that way explicitly to avoid central banks and large financial institutions. Just as email allowed messages to move around without going through a central postal service, the computer network maintaining Bitcoin records allows money to move around without going through any central authority.

That would provide a good way to get around sanctions, which are usually enforced through regulatory and banking disclosure rules.

But some central bankers have said that issuing their own currencies on some sort of blockchain could make it easier for citizens to use the money without going through intermediaries like banks and credit card companies. It could also make the records more resistant to tampering and hacking.

In a speech last year, a member of the German central bank's executive board, Carl-Ludwig Thiele, said the bank's "conceptual study shows that blockchain technology can be adapted to meet the current needs and requirements of the financial system."

"The prototype works," he added.

These projects, though, have been slow to move from prototype to working systems, and many officials and programmers have pointed to many technical hurdles that still need to be overcome.

None of that has stopped Venezuela from moving forward quickly with its effort to create a digital asset that the government can control.

Mr. Maduro introduced the idea on Dec. 3 in his regular Sunday television program. He said he had been monitoring so-called cryptocurrencies and had put in place plans to create the Petro, which would be backed by the country's gold, oil, gas and diamond reserves.

"To overcome the financial blockade, this will allow us to move toward new forms of international financing," he said.

Since then, the government has created an office of the cryptocurrency superintendent and appointed officials to run the operation.

The Petros are set to live on a blockchain like the one Bitcoin uses, but will derive their value from the government's natural resources.

The link between Petros and natural resources could be similar to the backing that gold provided for most international currencies a century ago. The backing might counteract the sort of hyperinflation that the real Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, has experienced in recent years because of the government's unbridled expansion of the money supply.

The boldness of the Petro plan is in proportion to Venezuela's desperate economic condition, which has officials looking for anything that could help.

"The country is in a social crisis," said José Ángel Álvarez, the head of a national association, Asonacrip, that has been working with the government on the Petro. "How do we manage to build trust? Open technology, clear rules that meet the attributes of the cryptocoin: decentralization, for example."

Mr. Álvarez said he anticipated that the first oil will be sold for Petros in the first half of 2018.

But the link between the currency and the government's oil holdings is likely to make it unattractive to investors, given the lack of confidence that investors have shown in Mr. Maduros's government.

There is a measure of irony in the government's interest in cryptocurrencies. Over the last few years, Venezuelans have shown a growing interest in virtual currencies as a means of escaping Mr. Maduro's government.

An online marketplace known as LocalBitcoins has connected Venezuelans looking to buy Bitcoin and get their money out of the bolívar, which has steadily lost value because of hyperinflation. This year, the number of transactions in Venezuela on LocalBitcoins has risen tenfold, according to Chainalysis, a data analysis firm.

The Venezuelan government has not been nearly as welcoming of this type of virtual currency activity.

Randy Brito, the founder of the Facebook group Bitcoin Venezuela, said that in December he identified between 10 and 20 cases where people in Venezuela appeared to have been arrested for their Bitcoin activities – more than double the cases he had seen in the year up until now.

In most cases, buying any sort of foreign currency is illegal in Venezuela. That prevents residents from sending all of their money out of the country.

Mr. Brito, who left Venezuela in 2004 and now lives in Spain, said everyone in his group was aware of how the government was punishing its citizens for doing the same thing that the government was trying to do within the broader financial system.

"The irony is in front of us," he said. "They have been blockaded by the U.S., just like they blockade their own people from operating."

The Russian government has also not looked kindly upon its citizens' use of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies. While the government's policies have remained opaque, officials with the Russian Central Bank have talked about blocking the access of people inside the country to virtual currency websites, and Mr. Putin has pointed out the many potential illegal uses of the technology.

"First and foremost, this is an opportunity for laundering illegal gains, tax evasion and even financing of terrorism, not to mention the proliferation of scams to which ordinary people can fall victim," he said in October.

But Mr. Putin has indicated that he is open to potential uses of the technology that would be under his control. In June, he had a much publicized conversation with Vitalik Buterin, the creator of one of the largest virtual currency networks, Ethereum. Mr. Buterin was raised in Canada and has dual Russian and Canadian citizenship.

A number of officials with the central bank and the Ministry of Communication have dropped hints about the creation of some sort of crypto ruble.

The efforts in Russia are much less urgent than those in Venezuela because the Russian economy is doing much better. But leaders there have been looking widely for any way to push back against American sanctions.

The Russian minister of communications, Nikolai Nikiforov, said in October that a crypto ruble would be designed quite differently from Bitcoin, with no need for the mining process through which Bitcoins are released into the world.

Such a currency would make it easier for the government to track and tax transactions, which is an advantage that other countries have spoken about as well.

The authorities in the United States have long been aware that virtual currencies might be used to evade sanctions. David S. Cohen, a Treasury official focused on terrorism and financial intelligence, said in 2014 that the American authorities were not seeing any widespread efforts to get around sanctions with virtual currencies.

But, he said at the time, "these are adaptable actors who are drawn to ungoverned spaces and so may increasingly look to this technology as an attractive way to transfer value."

[Source: By Nathaniel Popper, Oleg Matsnev and Ana Vanessa Herrero, The New York Times, San Francisco, 03Jan18]

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