Since before Peter the Great Russians have enjoyed gambling and despite periods of prohibition it is a tradition now being closely followed by a leadership willing to roll the dice one more time.
Vladimir Putin, a now 61 year old former KGB Colonel, has never been adverse to the odd spot of gambling. Riding around bare chested in front of the camera might look awfully macho but there is always the potential for the internet to suddenly be covered in pictures of the glorious leader flat on his backside as his horse gallops away in the distance. Vlad evidently has never heard the old adage “Never work with children or animals”. Nor, it would appear, has he heard of quitting whilst you\’re ahead.
Internet gambling in Russia might be limited to poker rooms, where the skill involved keeps them the right side of legal (but only just), but the spirit of taking a chance seems alive and well in the corridors of the Kremlin. Whilst you\’d think this cavalier attitude would alarm the general public the actual response from everyday Russians has been overwhelmingly supportive and Mr. Putin remains one of the most popular leaders the nation has ever had.
His actions on the international stage are having, and will continue to have, far reaching consequences for Russia, for Europe and indeed perhaps for the world. However popular this might make him on the streets of Moscow there are those both within Russia and beyond that see huge inherent risks in this continuation of diplomacy by other, far more forceful means, and there is just a chance it has all gotten out of hand.
Online poker sites in Russia get competition from Sochi
• Gambling zones extended inside Russia
• Crimea to become Las Vegas on the Black Sea
• Chinese tourists offered visa free travel
When Russian special forces assisted local units of the Crimean military to annex itself from Ukraine a joke sprung up on the internet that drew comparisons between 2014 and 1914 drawing on the memories of those terrible events 100 years ago. It said that to mark a century passing since the start of the First World War the French had put up statues in its villages, the Germans had lowered its flags to half mast, the British had made a documentary series for the BBC and the Russians had invited everyone to World War III.
It was, at the time, quite amusing, but in light of recent events in Ukraine one wonders if it doesn\’t have the whiff of too-true-to-be-funny about it. Whilst the Crimean situation was quickly, and bloodlessly, put to rest, the circumstances in the Ukraine have not only deteriorated but become a matter of not just local but global importance. In an echo of the cold war east and west now face off against each other across the steppe and no one is quite sure how matters will be resolved.
Vladimir Putin is not a man given to backing down and sees the Ukraine as an integral buffer between Russia and NATO which he will not lightly give up a controlling influence over. The salvaging of Crimea from a Ukraine rapidly falling outside his sphere of influence was a tactical necessity, the backing of ethnically Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine far less so. It might have kept Ukraine from joining NATO in the short term, but what sort of future has it wrought?
It is this uncertainty that has some of the richest people in Russia concerned. With America now pushing for sector wide (rather than specific entity) sanctions to be put in place immediately there is a worry that the punitive action being taken against Putin will have a catastrophic effect on the rest of the Russian economy. Dire forecasts of economic collapse do nothing for confidence and the mutterings are becoming louder all the time.
The EU is still fractured over the issue with different nations having very different attitudes towards the sanctioning of a country upon which they depend for vast percentages of their energy supply needs. However with public opinion being whipped up by an enthusiastic media in the west nearly as much as it is in Russia, it is thought likely that still harsher sanctions can only be a matter of weeks away, unless Putin backs down in the Ukraine, something he really isn\’t likely to do.
The investigation into MH17 may prove pivotal with a finding against Russia almost certainly spelling the end for the Russian economy as we know it, and a finding against Ukraine being almost the only thing that can get Putin out of the corner he\’s painted himself into. His territorial conquests and nation destabilization tricks might have sound tactical reasons behind them, but as he\’s discovered whenever you gamble there\’s a risk you might lose.
In 2009 strict new gambling laws in Russia placed all gambling under state regulation and removed it to four specially chosen areas. From the Baltic to the Pacific, from Siberia to the Black Sea there were but four regions in which gambling was permitted, and whilst success thus far has been patchy (to say the least) it hasn\’t stopped Mr. Putin from extending these areas in light of recent, very different, events.
The annexation of Crimea divested many state pensioners and military officers from their employers (the Ukrainian government) and the economic needs of the region are going to outweigh its earnings for some time to come. However Putin has grand plans for the peninsula signing into law a change that allows them to be the fifth region with legal gambling in Russia. This might be good gambling news for tourists and holiday makers but not everyone is pleased about it. It is perhaps not why they sought to return to Mother Russia.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the failure of the Winter Olympics and its legacy of facilities on the Black Sea coast to be economically viable so that gambling is creeping into that resort too despite previous objections from Vladimir Putin himself. The future of gambling in Sochi might not concern anyone but the investors who financed the games, but the gamble Putin is taking with the Russian economy and western sanctions isn\’t a game at all anymore.