Kazakhstan is experiencing a betting boom. Bookmaker's offices are mushrooming across the country, allowing just about anyone to gamble on international sports matches. And, as if to tempt every last ludomaniac, thousands of electronic kiosks – in shopping arcades, pedestrian underpasses, and gas stations – are standing by to take your bets.
The situation looked dire for Kazakhstan's gamblers six years ago when authorities forced casinos to relocate to two purpose-built betting zones – Shchuchinsk in the north and Kapshagay in the south. The move was designed to help regulate and tax this somewhat shady business and confront gambling addiction.
While the exclusive casinos are keeping the high-rollers happy, in recent months a number of nationwide bookmaker chains have sprung up to cater to small-time punters who wish to gamble on international soccer and hockey matches and the like. While casinos require visitors to purchase between $300-500 in chips, in these state-licensed bookmakers, which are often attached to bars and restaurants, the minimum stake is 500 tenge ($3.30). At parlors like Bet City, Fair Play and Profit, it's never been easier to place a bet.
Today there are hundreds of such licensed bookmakers operating in Kazakhstan. Olimp, the biggest network, has 267 branches, with 86 in Almaty and 61 in the capital, Astana.
For those who like a little after-hours gambling, online betting is also gaining ground. Bets can even be made at ubiquitous QIWI payment terminals (usually used for topping-up mobile phones and paying utility bills). Across Kazakhstan there are 10,000 such reverse-ATM machines just waiting to inhale your cash.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan appear to be of two minds about the country’s gambling industry.
Until a ban came into force on January 1, the sector was booming, relatively speaking. The injunction, drawn up under former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev (now president) and his deputy prime minister, Omurbek Babanov (now prime minister), was, they said until a few weeks ago, necessary to crack down on organized crime. Now the Atambayev-Babanov tandem seems to think allowing some gambling could burnish their pro-business credentials.
Speaking before reporters on January 30, Babanov demonstrated just how muddy his government’s policy is, first by lamenting government regulations:
“The gambling sector is sick enough,” he said. “Many times the government tried to impose strict rules to regulate the sector. All this led to the parliament’s cardinal decision to ban casinos.”
Then, by lamenting the undesired consequences of those regulations, which are difficult to enforce and have prompted street protests (ostensibly supporting casino workers put out of their jobs):
“Now, much has gone into the shadows ... Of course its wrong when the people working in the casinos were left without jobs.”
Then, by promising to resurrect the sector under a new, more regulated regime:
The prime minister said that the government would submit to parliament a proposal for the development of an isolated area near the village of Tamchy [on Lake Issyk-Kul] where gaming centers and casinos would be located.
If you run a successful international chain of casinos and are after new places to open a branch, you look for somewhere suitably glamorous and wealthy, right?
Well, no, not if you're Storm International.
In an apparently counter-intuitive move, the company last year opened a casino in Kyrgyzstan's desperately impoverished Batken Province, near the border with Tajikistan.
Really, who in that part of the world would have the disposable income to spare on high-stakes gambling? What kind of person in Tajikistan or southern Kyrgyzstan has money to fritter away on expensive leisure pursuits or, say, expensive SUVs and such?
Whoever these people are, the fun is seemingly all over for them, for authorities in Kyrgyzstan have apparently decided to shut down the Shangri-La Casino, Tajik news portal Asia-Plus reports.
As the site cautiously notes, "the reason for the suspension of the casino's operations is unknown, but according to some sources, operations were suspended following a ruling handed down by a chief prosecutor in Kyrgyzstan's Batken Province."