Belarus allows traders to buy shares with bitcoin

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus launched a platform on Tuesday allowing traders to buy shares, gold, foreign exchange and other traditional assets with cryptocurrencies, which it says is the world’s first regulated tokenized securities exchange.

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Belarus has developed a flourishing IT industry and launched a series of business-friendly reforms after a 2015-2016 recession. It passed a law in December 2017 on cryptocurrencies, aiming for them to become a way for companies in the country to attract funding from foreign investors.

The government has not commented on the new platform but its launch was covered by the state news agency BelTa on Tuesday.

The platform allows traders to buy tokens using cryptocurrencies through a website or app. The tokens track the value of assets such as shares both in Belarus and abroad. The government allowed such transactions to be tax-free until 2023.

The project was launched by two IT-focused investment companies, VP Capital and Larnabel Ventures.

“This is the first platform in the world where cryptoinvestors will be able to diversify their investments into real assets,” VP Capital’s owner Viktor Prokopenya told Reuters.

The platform issued 150 types of tokens corresponding to traditional financial instruments on Tuesday, and expects to increase that to 10,000. Among other things, the platform offers the sale of shares in companies like Apple Inc AAPL.O, gold, oil and metals.

Within the first two hours, it received 2,000 applications for registration. According to Prokopenya, a trader must undergo a verification procedure to guard against money laundering.

Virtual currencies are volatile and fell sharply year amid increased regulatory scrutiny and amid some instances of hacks and thefts at crypto exchanges.

“The standards that have been developed in Belarus are correct, they correspond to accepted international practices,” Prokopenya said.

“We believe that this project will allow Belarusian companies to attract additional funding both domestically and externally,” he added. “Because at the moment the stock market of Belarus is far from the state in which it should be.”

The former Soviet republic, squeezed between Russia and the European Union, is still dominated by the state, weighed down by bureaucracy and inefficient state-owned enterprises, and sustained by Russian money and subsidies.

But despite President Alexander Lukashenko once referring to the internet as “garbage”, the authorities have offered benefits to the IT industry such as tax breaks.

The sector has grown by around 20 percent annually. IT exports grew 40 percent in the first nine months of 2018, having crossed $1 billion for the first time in 2017.

Editing by Matthias Williams and Susan Fenton