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Police battle illegal Russian gamblers

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

Police vidoe of raid on ilegal casino
A picture from a police video shows officers catching staff and gamblers red-handed

Illegal gambling has spread rapidly across Russia since a new law came into force last July banning casinos and slots machines in towns and cities, according to a senior police officer in an exclusive interview with the BBC.

Col Oleg Bolderov of the economic crimes department of the Russian police said they had carried out thousands of raids over the past eight months.

"We have closed down 70 casinos and 4,000 slot-machine arcades... and have brought 600 criminal cases against those trying to organise this (illegal gambling)," he said.

A police video of one of the raids given to the BBC shows heavily armed officers dressed in black, breaking into an illegal casino and catching the staff and punters red-handed.

Brandishing automatic weapons, two police officers stand over a poker table busy with startled gamblers.

But despite the crackdown, well-placed sources connected to the formerly legal gambling industry say underground gambling dens continue to flourish in the capital, Moscow, and in St Petersburg, while in more far-flung cities very little actually changed when the law came into force last July.

'Gambling rife'

There are also allegations that some senior police officers are actively offering to protect illegal casinos in return for huge pay-offs.

"We were approached by a police official who told us that for $400,000 per month we could stay open," said one source who wished to remain anonymous.

Russian police officer Oleg Bolderov
In parts of Russia, gambling remains rife. Why? Because of corruption
Col Oleg Bolderov

Even Col Bolderov admits that authorities are fighting a losing battle against the continuing huge demand for gambling as well as against corrupt officials.

"One of the most probable explanations for the rise of illegal gambling is corruption," he says.

"In our police department, we do our best to close down underground casinos and slot-machine halls and we have some success.

"But in parts of Russia, gambling remains rife. Why? Because of corruption."

In the centre of Moscow it is easy to find slot-machine arcades operating openly, although slightly more discreetly than before.

And it took just a few phone calls to arrange a visit to an illegal casino.

I was told to leave my bag behind to ensure I had no recording equipment or cameras with me.

Lucrative industry

The owner then led me through corridors and heavy doors, which could only be opened using special security codes, into the casino.

It was not large but it had pristine poker tables, a roulette wheel and hi-tech slot machines.

At the bar, a lone gambler, his back turned to me, nursed a drink.

Still from police video of Moscow gambling site
The police have had some success in closing gambling sites down

According to industry sources the illegal casinos were up and running just four months after the ban came into force.

The new law, which should have put an end to gambling in Russia's towns and cities, was pushed through by the former president and now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

Casinos and slot-machine arcades had come to dominate city centres with their gaudy neon entrances.

The gambling industry, which was resurrected after the collapse of the Soviet Union almost twenty years ago, had grown to be worth around $6bn (4.4bn euros, £3.9bn) a year.

And the number of addicts was also growing.

Too remote

The government's plan was to banish gambling to four specially-designated zones in the remotest regions of the country.

But the zones were so remote that none of the big casino operators was prepared to invest the huge sums of money required to have the slightest chance of attracting gamblers to travel so far.

So for the most part, they remain empty plots of land.

In a forlorn ceremony earlier this month however, one casino in one of the regions did finally open its doors.

It is at least a two hour drive from the nearest city and airport, in the middle of nowhere in the far south of the country.

No other casinos have been built so far in any of the regions.

Already there are calls for the law to be revised on the basis that it has simply driven gambling underground and provided corrupt officials with yet another opportunity to solicit bribes.



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