Welcome to Friday, where the European flood death toll tops 100, Lebanon's prime minister steps down and a teenager gets a seat on Jeff Bezos' trip to space. We also get a look from Kommersant on the rising hopes of the reformist revolution in the post-Soviet state of Moldova.
• Germany death toll rises to at least 103, hundreds missing: "Once-in-a-century" flooding in Western Europe has left at least 103 people dead in Germany, and at least nine dead in neighboring Belgium. Hundreds remain missing as search teams continue to look for survivors. The scale of destruction has surprised even climate change experts.
• Merkel's White House farewell: In an otherwise warm final visit to the White House as Chancellor, Angela Merkel and U.S. President Joe Biden disagreed on the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that the United States fears will increase European reliance on Russian gas. Biden was the fourth occupant of the White House since Merkel took office in 2005.
• COVID spreading in Asia and Africa: As Indonesia becomes Asia's new COVID epicenter, nearby countries are planning new restrictions with Singapore"s announcement it will limit social gatherings, a move that South Korea is also considering. Across Africa, cases have "surged by 43 percent in the space of a week." There is concern that the Delta variant could mutate into more dangerous variants as it sweeps through largely unvaccinated regions.
• Lebanese prime minister steps down: Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon has decided to step down after nine months of attempting in vain to form a functioning coalition of cabinet members. Hariri was designated prime minister in the wake of the Beirut port explosion and the ongoing economic crisis, and his exit will likely delay any international aid packages.
• Dutch crime reporter dies: Peter R. de Vries, the acclaimed Dutch crime reporter known for his investigations into mobsters and drug lords, died Thursday from injuries sustained when shot at close range in central Amsterdam last week.
• Pacific Rim leaders discuss post-pandemic economic recovery: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will chair a virtual meeting for members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to discuss post-COVID economic recovery plans. Presidents Joe Biden, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, as well as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are among the other leaders to be included in today's special meeting.
• Teen to fly to space with Bezos: Oliver Daemen will become the youngest person to enter space after the anonymous public auction winner who was slated to go stepped down due to scheduling conflicts. Bezos' "Blue Origin" flight will also include Wally Funk, 82, who is set to be the oldest person to enter space.
German daily newspaper Die Welt reports on the severe floods impacting the western portion of the country. More than 100 people have died across Western Germany, with many still missing.
A reformist revolution in Moldova may actually happen
Last year's election of reformist president Maia Sandu was the first step, notes Kommersant reporter Vladimir Soloviev in Moldova. But now, after this week's parliamentary election, her PAS party, may wield full control to build the post-Soviet state into a well-functioning democracy. But what will it look like on the ground?
Corruption is "pervasive": The fight against the pervasive corruption in Moldova is at the top of the agenda of Sandu — it's just a question of how to get it done. A Kommersant source close to PAS says that there is a debate within the party about whether the country needs major constitutional amendments.
The bloc of communists and socialists that make up the core of Sandu's opposition is in many respects an artificial construction. The former presidents Vladimir Voronin and Igor Dodon do not like each other, to put it mildly.
Natalia Gavrilița, deputy chairman of the PAS and one of Sandu's closest associates, says that the ruling party intends to keep its promise to voters and launch a war on corruption. "We will adopt strict laws on political corruption, we will remove the immunity of deputies and the president in corruption cases," she said.
This news could disturb many, including former President Dodon, who has immunity. All of Moldova remembers the video that surfaced last year where the once powerful and now fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc tries to give a black bag to Dodon, who was president at the time. Dodon doesn't touch it but utters the phrase: "You again with the bags. Give it to Kosta, and tomorrow he will give it to Cornel because tomorrow I have a flight at five o'clock. He has to pay my salary on Monday."
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Catastrophic floods are hitting vast areas of Western Europe, with German so far suffering the highest death count. German newspapers and commentators are finding different words and phrasing to describe the scale of destruction. Above, national broadsheet daily Die Welt called it Die Flutkatastrophe, while top-selling tabloid Bild dubbed the situation Todesflut - "flood of death" or "deathtide."
"Thinking of being an Ethiopian now is gone. I don't want to be in the same category with these people that have raped my sisters, that have killed my brothers and sisters."
—Tewodros Tefera, a Tigrayan surgeon who fled across the border into Sudan, told the BBC that he favors a complete break from Ethiopia, full independence for Tigray.
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 but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
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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