Moscow declares war on gambling

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The Independent Online

Though officials say that the "plague" has spread across Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it is in Moscow, known as the Las Vegas of the East, where they believe the problem is most acute.

The capital's powerful Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, said recently that the situation had become untenable, describing Moscow's gambling addiction as "unbridled debauchery and moral abasement". His words signal the beginning of a crackdown. Two influential MPs from the governing United Russia party have drafted a bill that would force all gambling establishments to relocate at least one kilometre outside residential areas. And Moscow is planning to introduce what the city currently lacks: any form of licensing of gambling.

Muscovites' love of gambling is plain to see. Flashy neon-lit casinos crowd its central Pushkin Square, and slot machines have taken root in almost every metro station. They have even begun to spring up in food stores and bakeries. Officials say that the city now boasts 56 casinos, more than 2,000 gaming halls and up to 70,000 slot machines.

The annual turnover of Russia's gambling business is put at $4bn, and in Moscow there is said to be one slot machine per 170 people. Two million Muscovites frequent gaming halls.

Andrei Metelsky, deputy chairman of the Moscow City Parliament, says that machines have been rigged to "rob" people and argues that it is the vulnerable who are suffering the most.

The city wants to restrict the number of gaming halls, introduce licensing laws and bring in punitive taxes to make these businesses unprofitable. Officials say that the poor gamble away their last roubles rather than spend the money on food. "Gambling is bad for citizens just as alcohol and drugs are. Moscow's young generation is being destroyed and we cannot allow that," Mr Metelsky said.