After news broke this week that Latvian national air carrier airBaltic had quietly begun to accept Bitcoin payments, cryptocurrencies suddenly became a hot topic for Latvian policymakers.
On Wednesday, a representative of Latvia’s central bank warned Latvians that Bitcoin is neither legal tender, nor is its value guaranteed by a central authority.
Latvijas Bankas payment and financial analyst Deniss Fiļipovs said the lack of guarantees by a central authority means Bitcoin cannot be a store of value. Furthermore, he advised consumers to be aware of the fact that Bitcoin offers weak consumer protection.
These are all familiar criticisms from European central banks.
- Latvijas Bankas
Technically, airBaltic isn’t the first airline from which you could buy tickets with Bitcoin. American Airlines, for example, works with Gyft to sell tickets to users, who are able to purchase Gyft cards with Bitcoin. AirBaltic is simply the first airline to actively pursue and adopt Bitcoin payments, which is still a big deal.
What is even more interesting is the fact that, since November 2011, airBaltic has been a mostly state-owned company, with the Latvian government becoming a 99.8% majority shareholder after having to bail out the airline.
airBaltic has taken some criticism this week for levying a 5.99 EUR processing fee on Bitcoin transactions, which, as Neil Murray of The Nordic Web noted on Medium, is just an unnatural deterrent to get customers to buy the airline’s branded credit card.
Thus, he concludes, airBaltic is missing a big opportunity.
Bitcoin Activity in Latvia
Latvian news portal Delfi [LV] reported Thursday that few other Latvian business plan to adopt Bitcoin payments anytime soon. Representatives from retailer Maxima, mobile carrier LMT and social network Draugiem.lv (“Latvia’s Facebook”) all dismissed the possibility that their organizations would start processing Bitcoin in the near future.
Other than Wednesday’s response, the Latvian central bank has been mum on Bitcoin and cryptocurrenices in general. Latvia has no Bitcoin ATMs, either, and it only has 108 Bitcoin nodes, 53rd among all countries according to Bitinfocharts.com.
The Latvian Economy
It should be noted that Latvians might just be a little hesitant with currency and economic disruption at the moment.
In January just adopted its second official currency, the euro, since gaining official independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. That’s already three fiat currencies within the lifetimes of many of the country’s residents.
During the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, Latvia was hit hard. In the last quarter of 2008, its GDP shrank by more than 10%. The second largest bank in the country was nationalized. The EU had to send a 7.5 billion euro package to bail out the country.
Perhaps we can forgive Latvians, then, if any excitement about another new currency falls mostly on deaf ears.
Still, foreign investors are attracted to this northeastern European nation, a country that is poised to take over Cyprus’ place as a Euro banking haven. Plus, Latvia has a big neighbor to the east that isn’t so Bitcoin-friendly itself yet has numerous investors looking for ways to expatriate their money.
Just as Murray suggests airBaltic do with its processing fee, Latvians might just want to re-evaluate the opportunities Bitcoin could present.
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