Is there ever a good time to hold an independence referendum? Of course the answer to that question, from Kurdistan to Catalonia, depends on whom you ask. For those looking to declare a new nation based on ethnic, economic or political claims, there's no time like the present to take destiny into your own hands and finally right the course of history.
On the other hand, current national leaders who seek to hold current borders and maintain territorial unity will always find good reasons to oppose such moves.
But perhaps the timing and motivations of both sides (all valid in their own right) matter less than the short- and long-term consequences these latest two such referenda might provoke.
Some five million people are expected to cast their vote today in Iraq's northern region of Kurdistan, in an independence referendum opposed by the federal government in Baghdad, all regional powers — with the notable exception of Israel — the United States and the United Nations. Beyond the constitutional argument, opponents in Iraq's capital and abroad argue that attention should first be focused on defeating ISIS, with Kurdish forces playing a crucial role in this still unfinished war. Kurdish independence would further weaken Iraq, and exacerbate divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the rest of the country.
Both Iran and Turkey, two key regional players with their own restive Kurdish minorities, are strongly opposed to any such nationhood for Kurds in Iraq, which is at least partially driven by a desire to secure the region's oil wealth. Given the phrasing of the question being asked today in Erbil ("Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdish areas outside the region to become an independent state?"), it's hard not to see their point.
A textbook example of how economic resentment can feed into pre-existing historical and cultural grievances.
Some supporters of Kurdish independence worry of the consequences, in light of the national and international forces opposed, according to a reportage from Erbil by French daily Libération. Still, momentum for a "Yes' vote appears to be growing. "We have two choices: independence or submission," declared Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud Barzani at a rally this weekend.
Placed in a wider, regional perspective, an independent Kurdistan might just be the first step towards a general redrawing of Middle Eastern borders along ethnic and religious lines, something The New York Times has reported in the past.
Far across the Mediterranean, another tectonic change could be set off from the Spanish region of Catalonia, where a vote on independence is planned for Oct. 1. The situation there is a textbook example of how economic resentment can feed into pre-existing historical and cultural grievances. The authorities in Catalonia, Spain's richest region, have long protested the federal government siphoning its wealth into Madrid, and insisted they would be better off alone. Madrid's move last week to send in the police and arrest Catalan leaders has only served to "deepen the wound," as Catalan author Francesc-Marc Álvaro wrote in Barcelona-based daily La Vanguardia, and to embolden the pro-independence side, as rallies held across the region over the weekend have shown.
Though the implications are less severe than in the Middle East, the emergence of an independent Catalonia could also set a dangerous precedent in Europe, as it might convince other independent-minded regions such as Spain's Basque country, Belgium's Flanders, or even Germany's Bavaria, to go it alone. The repercussions, for old nation-states as well as for European institutions already struggling to reach consensus with 28 members, could be devastating.
It is an interesting paradox of our ever smaller and more globalized world that so many new claims of nationhood are emerging across the planet. There is no established formula for measuring the legitimacy of any such claim to independence, but it is hard to deny that each one adds more strife to an already unstable world.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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