Moscow seeks control over the gambling business - Sunday 12th of June 2005

The gambling business has been booming in Moscow in the past few years. Today, for its 10 million residents, the megalopolis has 56 big casinos, more than 2,000 gaming halls and more than 50,000 slot machines, that is at least one per 200 citizens, including old folks and babies.

Fruit machines now stand in bakeries and snack bars, in small shops and right on the streets, often near schools and hospitals. Poor people are often the first to become addicted. True stories are spread around the city about affluent people who began gambling and then lost their money, businesses, families and even homes. There are legends about those who beat fortune at its own game, but they are far fewer.

Deutsche Bank values the annual turnover of Russian gambling business at $4 billion. Moscow accounts for the lion's share of the sum, but the money does not reach the city budget.

"It all began when the right to license gambling businesses was given to the Federal Agency for Physical Culture and Sports," says Vladimir Platonov, the chairman of the Moscow city Duma. "As a result, the city authorities could not halt the spread of the gambling epidemic in the capital." Moscow deputies recently asked Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to support legal restrictions on the placement of gaming machines in the city. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov describes the gambling boom as debauchery and morally repulsive, and has called for gambling establishments to be moved out of the city.

Russia's most influential political party, United Russia, shares the indignation of the Moscow authorities. Earlier this summer it held a demonstration at the government's building demanding that regional authorities be given control over the gambling business. Andrei Metelsky, the deputy chairman of the Moscow city Duma, believes that after that the gambling wave that has seized not only Moscow, definitely the national leader, but also other large cities, will begin to fade.

"No regional authorities will allow the uncontrolled development of gambling businesses, which usually evade taxes, deceive the population and exacerbate the criminal situation around them," Metelsky argues. He believes that bakeries and cafes are not suitable places for game machines, as low-income people often spend their meager money in fruit machines, which are almost impossible to beat, instead of buying essential food. Meanwhile the machines' owners profit not only from trade and services, but from gambling, which can be easily excluded from taxation.

Do the Moscow authorities and supportive politicians in United Russia intend to eradicate the entire gambling business in the country? Most probably, they do not. Apparently, they are only aiming to stop it spreading and to limit it to places that could be called a Russian Las Vegas or Monte Carlo. Then the state will receive the taxes it is due, bakers will sell bread, and credulous commoners will save their money for better uses.

"Our task is to turn gambling into a civilized form of business," says Metelsky.

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