Russia sends gambling into exile | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 30.06.2009
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World

Russia sends gambling into exile

Russia once sent its political prisoners to the wastelands at the edges of its empire, and is now doing the same with its casinos.

The casino Million on Arbat Street, Moscow.

Russia's casinos will close their doors on July 1st when a new ban comes in.

From July 1, the government plans to ban the existing casinos and gambling halls and replace them with Las Vegas-style gaming zones in four rarely visited regions considered in need of investment, including one near the border with North Korea.

The Russian capital has around 550 places where you can gamble, including 30 casinos which have become synonymous with Moscow's love of excess; and which occupy prime spots across the city.

But it's not just the glitzy casinos in the big cities that are affected. Every roulette table and every grimy slot-machine across Russia will be sent into exile.

Many fear the move will create massive unemployment.

No more bets, please.

In the Moscow casino "Korston", one of the biggest in Europe, the ball rolls in the roulette wheel. "No more bets", says croupier Dmitri Menshikov. He's still at his roulette table, but when the ban takes effect on the 1st of July, all bets will be off for him and his colleagues.

Overall, an estimated 300,000 to half a million employees will lose their jobs. It's something Dmitri could never have dreamed of when he first stepped behind a roulette wheel six years ago.

"A job in the gambling industry has always been seen as completely crisis-proof," Menshikov says, "even in the big crisis of 1998, when the ruble and the Russian economy collapsed, salaries were still being paid in casinos."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came up with this idea back in 2006 when he was president. He says it's for the health of the Russian people, who he says have become addicted to gambling since the end of communism. It's also a way to get investors into areas which desperately need it.

However many analysts and Russian journalists are saying the government has pursued this ban because of Georgian criminal links to several gaming operations in Moscow.

Lisandro Platzer, vice president of Korston, which runs hotels as well as casinos, fears that this new law will send large parts of the gambling industry underground where they'll continue operating illegally.

"That's why I don't understand this law," Platzer says, "why this new law is being introduced so strictly. Law enforcement agencies already have enough to do in the fight against prostitution and drugs, and they've had little success."

The gambling halls of Korston Casino will be turned into a musical and theatre hall, an indoor golf facility and a children's playground.

Most of the 1,000 employees are likely to lose their jobs.

The gambling development zones are at the far corners of Russia's huge area: in the southern Krasnodar region, the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, east Siberia's Altai region and the Far Eastern port of Primorye. None of the projected casinos has been built, and an investment of more than 16 billion euro will be needed to realise the project.

Critics of the government plan say it is doomed because it will never attract enough investment.

However, Lisandro Platzer is prepared. He's applied for a piece of land in one of the special zones, but as yet he's not clear about the tax situation, nor are there any solutions to the problem that there is also no electricity or infrastructure in the area.

"For the moment we'd rather invest our money in some other country," he said.

"We've just bough a casino in Montenegro, and everything there is ready to go."

He's not alone in buying up in Montenegro, either.

Matchstick poker a big gamble

There will be an exception to the new rules: after the ban takes effect poker will be allowed outside the special zones, but only so long as it is played for sport not money.

Some experts believe that many casinos will use this as a loophole and, after a phase of restructuring, will open anew. Even so, not every casino sees a future in poker, played for sport. Right now in Russia there are ten prestige building projects which have been frozen due to the new law.

“The mood here is naturally not very good,” says Dmitri the croupier.

“Especially now, in a time of crisis, it's not going to be easy to find another profession here in Russia.”

Author: Mareike Aden, Moscow (ch)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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