Last week, Pakistan’s Sindh High Court held a hearing on the legal status of digital currencies that might lead to an outright ban of cryptocurrency trading combined with penalties against crypto exchanges. Several days later, the Central Bank of Russia called for a ban on both crypto trading and mining operations. Both countries could join the growing ranks of nations that have moved to outlaw digital assets, which already include China, Turkey, Iran and several other jurisdictions.
According to a report by the Library of Congress, there are currently nine jurisdictions that have applied an absolute ban on crypto and 42 with an implicit ban. The authors of the report highlight a worrisome trend: The number of countries banning crypto has more than doubled since 2018. Here are the countries that banned certain cryptocurrency-related activities or announced their intention to do so in 2021 and early 2022.
The Central Bank of Bolivia issued its first crypto prohibition resolution in late 2020, but it was not until Jan. 13, 2022 that the ban was formally ratified. The language of the most recent ban specifically targets “private initiatives related to the use and commercialization of [...] cryptoassets.”
The regulator justified the move as investor protection considerations. It warned of “potential risks of generating economic losses to the [...] holders” and emphasized the need to protect Bolivians from fraud and scams.
Cryptocurrency transactions have been formally banned in China since 2019, but it was last year that the government took steps to clamp down on crypto activity in earnest. After several official warnings of the risks associated with crypto investment, China banned cryptocurrency mining and forbade the nation’s banks from facilitating any operations with digital assets. But the crucial statement came on Sept. 24 when a concert of the major state regulators vowed to jointly enforce a ban on all crypto transactions and mining.
Apart from the commonly cited notions of money laundering and investor protection, Chinese officials played the environmental card in their fight agains mining, which is a bold move for a country that contributes up to 26% of global carbon dioxide emissions, of which crypto mining represents a marginal share.
On Nov. 11, 2021, The National Ulema Council of Indonesia (MUI), the nation’s top Islamic scholarly body, proclaimed cryptocurrencies to be haram, or forbidden on religious grounds. MUI’s directions are not legally binding, and as such, it will not necessarily halt all cryptocurrency trading. However, it could deal a significant blow to the crypto scene of the nation with the largest number of Muslim citizens and affect future governmental policies.
MUI’s determination mirrors a common interpretation that has been shaping up across jurisdictions influenced by the Islamic legal tradition. It views crypto activity as wagering — a concept that arguably could be used to define almost any capitalist activity.
On Jan. 20, the religious anti-crypto push was furthered by another non-governmental Islamic organization in Indonesia, The Tarjih Council and the Central Executive Tajdid of Muhammadiyah. It confirmed the haram status of cryptocurrencies by issuing a fatwa (a ruling under Islamic law) that focuses on the speculative nature of cryptocurrencies and their lack of capacity to serve as a medium of exchange by Islamic legal standards.
On Sept. 9, 2021, Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB), the central bank of Nepal, issued a notice with the headline “Cryptocurrency transactions are illegal.” The regulator, referencing the national Foreign Exchange Act of 2019, declared cryptocurrency trading, mining and “encouraging the illegal activities” as punishable by law. NRB separately underlined that individual users are also to be held responsible for violations related to crypto trading.
A statement from Ramu Paudel, executive director of the Foreign Exchange Management Department of NRB, emphasized the threat of “swindling” to the general population.
A U-turn in Nigeria’s national policy on digital assets was cemented on Feb. 12, 2021, when the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission announced it was suspending all plans for crypto regulation, following a ban by the central bank introduced a week earlier. The nation’s central bank ordered commercial banks to shut down all crypto-related accounts and warned of penalties for noncompliance.
The Central Bank of Nigeria’s explanation for such a crackdown includes a number of familiar concerns such as price volatility and the potential for money laundering and the financing of terrorism. At the same time, CBN governor Godwin Emefiele stated that the central bank was still interested in digital currencies and that the government was exploring various policy scenarios.
On Apr. 20, 2021, the price of Bitcoin (BTC) tumbled 5% after Turkey’s central bank declared that “cryptocurrencies and other such digital assets” could not be legally used to pay for goods and services.
As the explanation went, the use of cryptocurrencies could “cause non-recoverable losses for the parties to the transactions [...] and include elements that may undermine the confidence in methods and instruments used currently in payments.” But that was just the beginning — what followed was a series of arrests of crypto fraud suspects, as well as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally declaring a war on crypto.
In December 2021, Erdoğan announced that national cryptocurrency regulation had already been drafted and would soon be introduced to the parliament. In a thriller twist, the president remarked that the legislation was designed with the participation of cryptocurrency industry stakeholders. The exact nature of the regulatory framework remains unknown.
In a Jan. 20, 2022 report intended for public discussion, the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) proposed a complete ban on over-the-counter cryptocurrency trading, centralized and peer-to-peer crypto exchanges, and crypto mining. The regulator also advanced the idea of imposing punishments for violating these rules.
In justifying the proposal, the CBR compared crypto assets to Ponzi schemes and listed concerns such as volatility and illegal-activity financing, as well as stating it undermined “the environmental agenda of the Russian Federation.” But perhaps the most relevant justification was its concern over the potential threat to Russia’s “financial sovereignty.”
How bad is all this?
It is hard not to notice that many of the countries on this list represent some of the most vibrant crypto markets. China does not need an introduction, Nigeria was the biggest source of Bitcoin trading volume in Africa, Indonesia was on crypto exchange Binance’s radar as an expansion target, and Turkey saw a rising interest in Bitcoin amid the lira’s freefall.
When crypto awareness and adoption reaches such levels, it is hardly possible to outlaw the technology, whose advantages have already become known to the general public. It is also worth mentioning that in many cases, authorities’ messaging around crypto has been ambiguous, with officials publicly voicing their interest in the potential of digital assets before and even in the wake of the ban.
Caroline Malcolm, head of international policy at blockchain data firm Chainalysis, noted to Cointelegraph that it is important to be clear that “only a very few cases is there, in fact, a full ban.” Malcolm added that in many cases, governmental authorities have limited the use of crypto for payments but allow them for trading or investment purposes.
Why do governments seek crypto bans?
Regulators’ motivations to outlaw some or all types of crypto operations can be driven by a variety of considerations, yet some recurring patterns are visible.
Kay Khemani, managing director at trading platform Spectre.ai, emphasized the degree of political control within the countries that seek to establish crypto bans. Khemani commented:
“Nations that do engage in outright bans are generally those where the state holds a tighter grip on society and economy. If larger, prominent economies start to embrace and weave decentralized assets within their financial framework, more likely than not, nations who erstwhile banned cryptos may take a second look.”
The major anxiety of nations, often concealed behind the stated concerns for the general population’s financial safety, is the pressure that digital currencies put on sovereign fiat currencies and prospective central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), especially in shaky economies. As Sebastian Markowsky, chief strategy officer of Bitcoin ATM provider Coinsource, told Cointelegraph:
“A general pattern suggests that countries with a less stable fiat currency tend to have high crypto adoption rates, and thus end up with bans on crypto, as governments want to keep people invested in fiat. [...] In China, the wide rollout of the digital yuan CBDC is rumored to be the real reason for the crypto ban.”
Malcolm added that drivers behind governments’ crypto policies can shift over time, and therefore, it is important to not assume that the positions that these countries take today are going to remain unchanged forever.
The hope is that in at least some of the cases reviewed above, strict measures limiting digital assets will eventually turn out to be a pause that regulators have taken to create a framework for nuanced, thoughtful regulation.