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Russian gambling halls shut down in most cities

ONE of the glitziest symbols of cash-splashing Russians vanished from Russia's cityscapes as a law banning casinos, slot-machine parlors and betting halls outside four remote regions of the country came into effect.

The law, a brainchild of Russia's famously anti-vice Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was estimated to put 400,000 people out of work at a time when Russia's economic crisis is deepening and unemployment is rising.

The government is also forgoing billions of tax dollars and observers say it could drive gambling - an industry understood to be controlled by a criminal element - underground.

A gamble worth taking, say officials, who hope to root out the criminal element and project Putin's image as a clean-cut workaholic onto the general population.

Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, casinos mushroomed across the country, especially in the capital, drenched in oil wealth. Slot machines quickly spread beyond gaming halls to shops and malls across the country.

As Moscow steadily accrued more dollar billionaires than almost any other city in the world, gambling exploded to produce several casino strips and a few multilevel super complexes. Drivers would fidget half-asleep at the wheel of souped-up SUVs that clotted casino parking lots, waiting into the early hours for their masters to play just one more hand.

But as of midnight Wednesday, no more.

Signs were unscrewed, doors locked, equipment destroyed as Russia's gaming industry dismantled practically nationwide.

Officials at some of the businesses said they would reopen as market research companies, or would rent out their valuable, often centrally located real estate.

The gambling law, passed three years ago at then-President Putin's initiative, confines gambling to four special zones in far-flung regions of Russia, most thousands of miles away from Moscow.

Casinos and slot machines will be allowed to operate only in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea; the Primorsky region on the Pacific coast; the mountainous Altai region in Siberia; and near the southern cities of Krasnodar and Rostov, host to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Construction at most of the sites is, however, still in its early stages, meaning it will be months or years before major legal gambling resumes in Russia.

The lack of progress was painfully evident Wednesday at the southern Russian zone, straddling the regions of Krasnodar and Rostov on the Azov Sea.

There, authorities have allotted a coastal stretch of land to a complex named Azov-City, an ambitious project of casinos and slot machine parlors that is currently little more than a construction site.

Krasnodar region governor Alexander Tkachyov attended a humble ceremony marking the gambling zone's first day, and used the occasion to call for investors to plow their cash into the region.

A token roulette wheel and a couple of poker tables were set up in a marquee adjacent to the construction site to greet the new law.

Back in Moscow, some businesses were trying to skirt the law by retooling themselves as poker clubs - arguing that should be considered a "game of chance" - or as places for Internet gambling, where patrons place bets but computer servers are located offsite at the distant gaming zones.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has criticized such efforts to circumvent the law.

"When you sit at casino and you play poker or preference, it's a casino .... but when you play poker at a poker club, it's considered a sport?" he said.


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