- - Friday, November 4, 2011

BISHKEK, Kygyzstan — Kyrgyzstan has enacted a ban on casinos that supporters say will ease the negative effects of gambling on Kyrgyz society, but opponents argue will leave thousands unemployed and boost organized crime.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva signed the legislation Tuesday.

Kyrgyzstan has 21 casinos and 300 gaming clubs, according to the government. Parliamentary deputy Bakytbek Jetigenov, who drafted the bill, says those figures are high for a nation of 5.5 million.

“It feels like in Las Vegas when you walk around Bishkek [the capital],” Mr. Jetigenov says. “Every hundred [yards] you see a gambling facility — they have a destructive effect on society, especially youth, who are easily addicted to gambling.”

However, after lawmakers almost unanimously approved the ban on Sept. 29, hundreds of casino workers demonstrated outside parliament, arguing that it will devastate their livelihoods.

Parliament member Shirin Aitmatova says she was surprised to find herself alone in voting against ban. She says the government first should create jobs for those who would be made unemployed when gambling facilities are shut down.

“The industry employs 15,000 people, most of whom are young people,” Ms. Aitmatova says. “Who will create jobs for them? Or will another 15,000 Kyrgyz citizens go to Russia to work as construction workers and janitors?”

An estimated 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s working-age population emigrates to Russia or Kazakhstan for jobs.

Ms. Aitmatova also notes that her country will lose tax revenue: “Sixty-five percent of the money spent in casinos belongs to foreigners. The overall tax casinos pay annually is about $11 million.”

Mr. Jetigenov says that sum is an “insignificant amount of money that does not change much in country’s budget.”

“As for people who may lose jobs, why shouldn’t casino owners move into other areas of business that would benefit the country’s economy and create more jobs?” he says.

Mirlan Tashmanbetov, president of the Association of Gambling and Entertainment Complexes of Kyrgyzstan, argues that banning casinos will lead to an unregulated, illegal gambling industry, citing what he says was the failure of similar bills passed in Russia in 2009 and Kazakhstan in 2007.

“When neighboring Kazakhstan and Russia banned gambling facilities, they all went underground,” says Mr. Tashmanbetov, who helped organize the protest against the bill. “This must be an indicator to our lawmakers that it is better to keep casinos legal and transparent.”

The bans on gambling facilities in Russia and Kazakhstan applied only to cities, forcing casinos to relocate to remote areas. Kyrgyzstan’s new law requires all gambling facilities across the country to close by January 2012.

Mr. Tashmanbetov says the government has not researched the effects of gambling on society, adding that gaming clubs in which slot machines are the main attraction are likely to remain open.

“Ironically, the bill will not affect these facilities, as they can easily re-profile into entertainment houses just as they did in Russia,” Mr. Tashmanbetov says.

There have been accusations of corruption on both sides of the debate.

Mr. Tashmanbetov says the speed with which the ban was drafted and enacted points to members of parliament having vested interests in it.

There have been lingering concerns that some parliament members could benefit from keeping casinos outside of the law through links to organized crime.

Mr. Jetigenov denies that he stands to gain financially from the ban.

“If I had any personal interests, I would have accepted the bribes I was offered by those who are involved in gambling industry in Kyrgyzstan,” he says. “Yes, I was offered money several times, a good sum of money both from legal and criminal sources to take the bill down. But I did not accept it, as I think we are doing the right thing.”