Russia’s new plan for Crimea: Vegas on the Black Sea?


Crimeans watch an April 17 television broadcast, as Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual call-in live broadcast, on the seafront in Sevastopol, Crimea. (Anton Pedko/European Pressphoto Agency)

Once upon a time, Crimea wasn't just known just for being a geo-political gray area it has become in the past few weeks. Instead, it was a place for the Russian elite to vacation: The Russian imperial family would spend time there from the mid-19th century onward, and when hard-liners tried to force Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev out in a coup in 1991, he was at his vacation home on the peninsula.

Now that Crimea is a de-facto part of Russia again, Moscow appears to be hoping that reputation could come back. In fact, Crimea may be on the path to becoming Russia's Las Vegas or Macau: According to Ria Novosti, the State Duma announced Monday that President Vladimir Putin has introduced a bill that would see gambling legalized in Crimea.

Putin's bill is something of a U-turn for a man who has long appeared to hate the vice of gambling and backed plans to ban gambling in the country. Back in 2006, the Russian president began criticizing the casinos that had appeared in the wake of communism's collapse in the country. "Like alcoholism, it inflicts serious moral and sometimes financial harm," Putin told the Duma back then, according to the Moscow Times.

Putin's plans came to fruition in 2009, with casinos and gambling rooms banned from almost all of the country. It was a drastic move: In 2005, there were 58 casinos, 2,000 gambling rooms and about 70,000 slot machines in Moscow alone, and the industry claimed that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost and that Russia would miss out on billions in tax revenue. For Putin, however, it appears that the moral argument outweighed the economic one.

The ban only allowed gambling in four far flung special zones: Kaliningrad Oblast, Azov-City (later moved to Anapa), Altai Krai, and Primorsky Krai. These regions were as far away from Moscow as you can get within Russia, and their exact status still isn't clear: To this day only Yantarnaya in Kaliningrad has actually developed any casinos, according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.

In some ways, Crimea as a gambling area makes some sense: For one thing, it's not far from Anapa, another designated gambling area, and it has a history with tourism.

But it does make you wonder how Putin sees the region. The Russian president had only recently ruled out plans for gambling in Sochi, saying that he wanted it to be a middle class destination and not a place only for those “who can afford losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a casino."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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