21st Century Gold RussiaThe new casino Angara, on Moscow’s bustling Novy Arbat Street, simply highlights that this country’s love affair with gambling is a sure thing. The casino, which opened last February, has 34 tables and 73 slot machines on a floor that is aiming for a 19th-century gentleman’s club atmosphere with its deep red carpeting, dark wood paneling and rich lighting.
“Nice place. Not bad,” said Mikhail Kustanovic, 33, a self-described high roller who favors blackjack and poker. “But in Moscow there is so much choice.
Gambling has flourished in Russia in the last three years, particularly in Moscow. A $5 billion annual business, it draws punters to classy establishments like the Angara, but also to the one-ruble slots in small arcades that increasingly flood city neighborhoods. There are now 76 casinos, 2,400 gaming rooms and approximately 85,000 slot machines in Moscow, according to city officials. In 2002, before the laws governing the licensing of gambling places were changed, there were 30 casinos and 20,000 slot machines.
“This business has just started to grow,” said Yulia Drynkina, marketing director of the Angara. Another luxury casino is slated to open on the Arbat later this year, and a new arcade opens in Moscow almost every day, according to city officials. Analysts say that at the current rate of growth, the number of slot machines in the city could rise to 100,000 in the next year.
The industry’s almost unrestricted development, especially slot machines in residential areas, has begun to trouble lawmakers and even some in the gambling industry fear that a public backlash could lead to a ban.
In 2002, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, gave a federal agency responsible for the development of sports and culture the right to issue gambling licenses, removing that authority from city or regional governments. In the last three years, the agency has issued at least 4,000 licenses at about $50 each, which allow their owners to open multiple casinos or arcades anywhere in the country.
The area around the Kiev railway station in Moscow exemplifies the surge in betting. Three years ago, there were four arcades in the area; today there are close to 50 gaming rooms, many of them operating around the clock.
The Duma and several regional parliaments, including Moscow, are considering new legislation that would limit or effectively ban the industry. A bill before the Duma would bar gaming within about 500 yards of a residential area, which would force operators out of all urban areas in the country. One lawmaker suggested the gambling industry consider creating its own Las Vegas, north of the Arctic Circle.
Lobbyists for the gaming industry have beaten back federal legislation before.
But a bill in the Moscow state parliament, which many people see as viable, would fix the number of gambling establishments in each of Moscow’s 120 districts to four, with eight allowed in the city center. The Russian Supreme Court recently upheld the right of another Russian region to limit gambling even if operators have already received a federal license. Moscow legislators are confident that they can also push through new regulations.