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Tables turned on Russian gamblers


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BBC follows police as they raid a casino

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

At the Metelitsa casino on Moscow's gaudy Novy Arbat street - a major centre of the gambling industry - blackjack tables lay tipped on their sides and roulette wheels had been cast onto the floor.

Police and officials led us through the deserted rooms.

The Moscow authorities said more than 100 teams of inspectors had fanned out across the city on Tuesday night, checking that every casino and gaming hall in the city had closed down for good.

The clampdown came as a radical new law banishing all gambling from the country's towns and cities finally came into force.

Along the corridors of the Metelitsa casino, lines of unplugged slot machines had already been packed up ready to be shipped out.

The casino was dark and silent.

The final straw for my wife was when I took money we'd saved for a medical operation for my son
Former gambling addict

"According to initial reports from all areas, all gambling halls are now shut," announced Leonid Sidhorov, a Moscow government official in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Despite much scepticism that this root and branch reform would ever be enforced, the government has pressed ahead with missionary zeal, spurred on by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The gambling industry, which is thought to generate up to $8bn (£5bn) in revenue every year, lobbied hard for the new legislation to be put on ice or amended.

But in May the president ruled this out.

"There will be no revisions, no pushing back, despite the lobbying efforts of various businesses," he said.

'Scourge'

Back in 2006, when the legislation first passed through parliament, then-President Vladimir Putin explained that gambling had become another scourge of Russian society, taking a place at the high-table of addictive social ills alongside alcohol and tobacco.

Casino closed in Russia
Critics say shutting casinos will just force gambling underground

It was also outside the government's control.

The casinos and gaming halls which had grown exponentially in number since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were loud, bright and dominated central areas of many of the country's major towns and cities.

To some they symbolised the raw and wild excesses of Russia's headlong rush into capitalism.

But to many others they became an unavoidable temptation just around the corner from homes and offices.

In his modest apartment in southern Moscow I met a once-successful businessman who spent 18 years fighting a desperate addiction to gambling.

"It's a madness that takes hold of you," he said. "I was borrowing money from everyone, lying to everyone and I lost everything.

"The final straw for my wife was when I took money we'd saved for a medical operation for my son. I really wanted to die, I wanted someone to kill me, to be hit by a car."

By the time he finally managed to quit gambling he had accumulated debts of $1.5m.

Remote regions

While casino owners admit the business needed regulating, they say the government's sledge-hammer approach will prove to be catastrophic.

"They've killed the industry overnight," says Michael Boettcher, President of Storm International, the biggest casino operator in Russia.

Michael Boettcher
Michael Boettcher describes the government move as "farcical"

"We're going to move outside the country. But we can't take all our people with us. So 6,000 staff from my company will lose their jobs... and it's estimated 450,000 people [across the country] will lose their jobs."

The casino industry also argues that the government will now lose up to $2bn (£1.2bn) a year in tax revenue, just at a time when it is struggling to cope with the worst economic crisis for a decade.

But the government has not banned gambling outright in Russia.

It continues to offer casino owners the chance to relocate to four specially-designated gambling zones in different parts of the country.

They are modelled on the Las Vegas concept of keeping gambling away from the general population.

But there seems to be a major flaw in the government's plan.

The zones are in some of the remotest, most inhospitable regions of the country and lack even the most basic infrastructure, such as roads and airports.

Mr Boettcher describes the plans as "farcical".

So it is widely assumed gambling will now go underground, with illegal gambling dens flourishing as they did during the last period of prohibition imposed by the Soviet government.

At the same time, the best and the brightest in the gambling industry will be working hard to find loopholes in the law to get the dice rolling again and the slot-machines switched back on.



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SEE ALSO
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