MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yury Filippov) - The State Duma has voted down a bill on state regulation of the gambling and betting industry.
Characteristically, the Russian parliament's lower house buried the bill in its second reading, long after its pivotal concept of reducing the number of casinos to enlarge the surviving ones found official approval.
The bill's doom does not mean gamblers and casino proprietors have several more years to enjoy the absence of related legislation, some happily drawing super-profits, others squandering their money, as before. The fate of the Russian gambling business is sealed, bill or no bill. Debates on the issue have been raging for years, with numerous arguments for and against. The State Duma discussed bills, one after another. Authorities took the hard line in some parts of the country. For example, all casinos and slot machine halls were closed within two days in Chechnya and North Ossetia. Now, President Vladimir Putin has issued a final verdict. He likened gambling to drug addiction and alcoholism in a public address, and offered the State Duma a bill of his own to fetter the vice.
Recent research by the Moscow Serbsky Psychiatry Institute produced some sensational revelations: gambling has become an obsession with more than two million Russians. Moscow, with its enormous number of slot machines, has 330,000 compulsive gamblers. The owner of just one slot machine makes an average profit of $10,000 per month. Gambling business tax returns have struck a seven billion ruble mark, roughly $260 million.
Many Russians hate gambling. State Duma member Vladimir Medinsky, author of one of the legislative amendment draft versions, went so far as to say concrete walls topped with barbed wire ought to be built round "casinos and other such filth" to keep young people and old-timers away. Another parliamentarian, Anatoly Aksakov, offered a package of Civil Code amendments envisaging incapacitation of gamblers.
The casino lobby fought back. The state regulation bill took so long to appear in parliament for its second reading partly due to a huge number of proposed amendments providing legal loopholes for proprietors to continue reaping their fabulous profits. Now, President Putin's draft bill leaves no room for compromise. It envisages a complete ban on Internet gambling throughout Russia, and proposes to establish analogues of Las Vegas by 2009 - areas of legalized gambling under strict state control. As the presidential blueprint has it, there will be no more than four such gambler's paradises in the entire country.
A campaign has taken start to oust casinos from Moscow. Recent Russian-Georgian tensions have come as unexpected help. President Mikhail Saakashvili, now at odds with the Russian government, was just as tough on Georgia's underworld several years ago, when he had several hundred criminal lords deported from his country in one fell swoop. The deportees were notorious for masterminding crime, prostitution, drug trafficking, fraud and gambling. Acting Georgian legislation envisages ten-year prison terms even for indirect involvement in a gang. As a result, the majority of Georgian big-time criminals settled in Russia. With its legal loopholes in the gambling industry, Russia not merely offered them a new home but gave a chance to regularly transfer millions of dollars to Georgia. Russian police has made checks at the most high-class of Moscow casinos - the Golden Palace, Golden Palace Weekend, Crystal, Baccarat, Sol and Cosmos - all run by immigrants from Georgia. Their activities have been suspended, and there is little chance for them to ever resume work on a previous scale.
President Putin's draft bill is expected to come into force before the year's end. If it does, the surviving gambling dens are certain to remain close to Moscow. The Ramensky District in the city environs has been announced as a leading candidate for becoming the principal Russian Las Vegas - a huge recreation and entertainment center, complete with casinos. A similar den of vice is blueprinted near Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast, and another in the Russian Far East. Something of the kind may appear in Siberia, too. It is out of the question to start any in the North Caucasus or in the Volga area, where several constituent republics have large Muslim communities.
Russian authorities mean those centers to cater mainly to foreign tourists, and make no secret of it. As they would have it, an average Russian is to find the places just as exotic as, say, an average Egyptian regards the opulent casinos in Sharm el Sheikh.
Meanwhile, gambling dens remain a familiar part of the Moscow landscape, even though they have become something of an endangered species. There were 2,770 gambling houses in the city at the start of the year. A municipal campaign left roughly 850 intact - one per 10,000 population, which is still an exorbitant number. It will take another several years of crusading to make them as scanty as they truly deserve.