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After plans to introduce casinos to Crimea, Putin approves gambling zone in Winter Olympic resort. EurasiaNet.org report.
Can Sochi take the Black Sea casino crown? Photograph: JACQUELINE LARMA/AP.
Paul Rimple for EurasiaNet.org, part of the New East network
A decade ago Sochi was just another dilapidated holiday destination but the 2014 Winter Olympics transformed the Russian resort, which now hopes to become the Monte Carlo of the Black Sea.
The plan to bring gambling to Sochi is a surprise addition to Russia’s move to allow casinos in Crimea: the peninsula, annexed by Russia in early 2014, experienced an economic crash and officials hoped that casinos could help with recovery.
Sochi is also looking for money to pay the bills from its Olympic makeover and the state-owned Sberbank – which has a 92% stake in one of Sochi’s proposed gambling zones Krasnaya Polyana – had been lobbying for a gaming license to help recoup tens of billions of roubles it invested in the city for the winter games.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who had originally opposed gambling in Sochi, had a change of heart and approved the new gambling zones earlier this year.
Russia cracked down on the industry in 2009, restricting casinos to four far-flung areas: Yantarnaya in Kaliningrad, Altai in central Siberia, Primorye in the far east, and Azov City in Krasnodar.
The 2009 restrictions had created an opportunity for Georgia to establish itself as a gambling hub, buoyed by the fact that gaming is prohibited in neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey and restricted in Armenia. But just as it starts to make solid contributions to Georgia’s struggling economy, it faces a challenge.
Sochi could be the largest threat to Georgia’s industry since 2013, when parliament introduced a bill to ban gambling. The Orthodox Church, the country’s most influential institution, is also opposed to the spread of casinos.
But Georgian MPs understand the significant contribution casinos make to the state’s coffers. In 2013 Georgia generated nearly 105.26 million lari (£36m) in 2013 from gambling taxes, about two percent of the the state budget, according to the State Revenue Service.
For the past nine year the Black Sea port of Batumi, 370km south of Sochi, has been the centre of gambling in Georgia, as the operating costs are lower than in the capital, Tbilisi.
Casinos in Tbilisi face one of the highest annual license fees in the world: 5 million lari. By contrast Batumi casinos only have to pay 250,000 lari. Anyone building a 100-room hotel with a casino is offered a 10-year freeze on annual license fees. The port has five casinos, with two more slated to open next year.
Russian high-rollers go to Macau or Monte Carlo
Mehmet Esen, finance director of Batumi’s Peace Casino, said he was not concerned about the competition as Russians only make up a small percentage of Georgia’s gamblers. Most come from Turkey or Azerbaijan, and there is a growing number from Iran. “Russian high-rollers go to Macau or Monte Carlo,” he said.
If Russia were to become serious competition for Batumi, it would have to implement a sound gaming law and somehow change its negative gaming reputation, he added. Gambling is largely unregulated in Russia and has a reputation of being connected to organised crime.
At a two-day gambling industry conference in Sochi, Mustafa Yilmaz, a director at Princess Casinos International, which operates casinos around the world, said the Russian resort could attract some of Georgia’s Azerbaijani and Turkish clients. Turkey currently enjoys a 30-day visa-free regime with Russia. Azerbaijanis can stay in the country for 90 days visa-free.
Batumi’s tourist season lasts only a few months in summer but Sochi attracts visitors in both summer and winter, Yilmaz added.
But a lack of strategy for Sochi’s gambling sector leaves Yilmaz and other casino investors with more questions than answers: nobody knows whether the planned gambling zone will be at the Olympic Park media centre, 30km from the city centre or the Olympic alpine site of Krasnaya Polyana, 67km away.
Conference attendees also said they are still unclear about the tax rates, the number of licenses that issued and how the casinos will be regulated.
“It’s a big if; a big blank. We don’t know anything,” Yilmaz said.
Ultimately, whether or not Georgia’s gaming industry suffers from Sochi casinos depends on the scale of investment and services there, said Ian Livingston, managing director at the Casino Adjara in Tbilisi: “If Sochi were to develop to such a degree as to be a mini-Vegas, then we feel it might draw some of our foreign players from surrounding areas,” he said.
Gambling experts agree that this will not happen soon: “you need a few years just to start and it will take them one year just to figure out the legal questions,” said Darren Keane, chief executive officer of Storm International, a major gaming-industry player which operates in Tbilisi and Moscow.
Anti-Putin protests in Brisbane, Australia. The Russian leader has defended his stance over Ukraine. Photograph: Daniel Munoz/Getty Images.
Vladimir Putin does not want to rule Russia for life, but may well run for another six-year term in 2018, he has said.
In an interview with a Russian state news agency, Putin, who has ruled as either president or prime minister since 2000, said he would base any decision to run again on the mood of the country and his personal feelings.
Staying in office beyond 2024 would be detrimental for the country, he told Tass. It was too early to erect monuments to himself, he said, but local officials who wanted to name streets after him “did so out of good intentions”.
The interview touched on familiar topics including the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the west. Putin said the west wanted to punish Russia for being strong and assertive, and not over the unrest in Ukraine.
“Take a look at our millennium-long history. As soon as we rise, other nations immediately feel the urge to push Russia aside, to put it ‘where it belongs’, to slow it down,” he said.
On Monday, the finance minister, Anton Siluanov, said that sanctions could cost the Russian economy at least $40bn (£26bn) a year, while the recent sharp drop in oil prices could lose the country as much as $100bn more.
Putin said the western countries that imposed sanctions on Russian individuals over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine this year “proceeded from a false assumption that I have some personal business interests because of ties with the people on the list”.
“By pinching them, they were trying to hit me,” he said, adding that the people on the list made their fortunes legally over a period of many years.
Many of those on the sanctions list are Putin’s former judo partners or KGB associates and have become wealthy since he became president.
As to events in Ukraine, which have pushed Russia and the west into their worst crisis since the cold war, Putin said he had no regrets because he was certain that Moscow had acted justly. “The strength is in the truth. When a Russian feels he is right, he is invincible. I am saying this with absolute sincerity, not for the sake of just saying.
“If we knew we had done something bad and were unfair, then everything would be hanging by a thread. When you lack the inner certainty that what you do is right, this always causes some inner hesitations, and these are dangerous. In this case I have none,” he said.
Macon Phillips, Coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs at the U. S. Department of State and Ariel Cohen, Director of Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security discuss Russian information wars in Kyiv on Nov. 19 at the Kyiv Post Tiger Conference. © Anastasia Vlasova
Oksana Lyachynska, Kyiv Post.
What does the Russian propaganda war mean for Ukraine and the world? How do you fight it? Experts from the United States, Britain and Ukraine attempted to answer these and other questions at the Kyiv Post Tiger Conference.
Below are some of the highlights from their talks.
Macon Phillips, coordinator of Bureau of International Information Programs at the U.S. Department of State
“Russia, the Kremlin push a lot of disinformation and you nearly want to argue about every individual piece of information, why it’s right or wrong. … We need to do more in terms of response. We need to actually protect the open system of media that is by far the best way to respond to these things.”
“The most effective way to counter the information war here in Ukraine is for Ukraine to succeed. We can spend all of our time trying to respond to this or that. But ultimate reality is going to drive that. If the Ukrainian government continues to implement reforms, continues to move forward, continues to sustain itself, eventually the reality will reach everyone.”
“The best way to respond to misinformation is with the truth. But the truth is a difficult thing to talk about.”
Dmytro Kuleba, Ambassador-at-Large for Strategic Communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine
“Russian information aggression is a threat not only to Ukraine but to all democracies. … The only difference is that Ukraine is in the front line.”
“What Russians are doing is not information attacks or information campaigns or information operations. They created a comprehensive reality encompassing all aspects of their interests. When you have to confront reality you have to create your own reality.”
“Russian information machine is built on fakes and manipulation, so if we want to win this game we have to focus on credibility.”
“It’s about changing communication culture inside the Ukrainian government. For example, minister of defense is key here. And we are working to change the communication culture to become more available for media. This is critical.”
“Russian strategy is based on the use of weapons of mass destruction. By this I mean Russia Today, Sputnik, army of trolls, bots, proxies, paid commentators. We base our strategy on something completely different, we base it on opinion leaders. I call them precision weapons. What cannot be done by us, can be done by opinion leaders in their countries. They can help us to disseminate the message. All we have to do is make them trust. They need to have trust in us.”
Ariel Cohen, director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security
“We believe that Ukraine can make it as a European, free, Western-minded country. So does Vladimir Putin. And he is scared of that because an alternative Slavic, Eastern Slavic, Orthodox, half-of-the-country Russian-speaking country next to Russia is something they cannot tolerate. And information warfare is a very-very important part of the fight that has been launched.”
“To me Ukraine is now fighting its war for independence. This is where the United States was in 1776, where Israel was in 1948. This is creation of a nation. A part of it is an understanding that information is one of the battle fields, it’s an integral part of the strategy, of the war fighting.”
“To answer your question about Ukraine, what this is going to be in terms of the information campaign or information warfare, there is a famous quote from the cult novel of the Soviet times “The Twelve Chairs”: ”Saving of those who sink is the matter for those who sink themselves.” So, it will be up for Ukraine.”
Timothy Ash, London-based head of emerging market research for Standard Bank
“Over twenty years Russian interests infiltrated the West.”
“To know your enemy is key. The Russian state knows exactly how West functions because they infiltrated business, banking, academia, journalism, politics in the West. … The infiltration of Russian interests in the West is a huge threat to Western values and Western civilization. … The weaknesses of European Union is certainly been exploited.”
“This is a wonderful opportunity for radical change. Countries very really get this opportunity. Crises create opportunities, they force change. Ukraine is in desperate need of deep structural change. Putin has done a huge favor by uniting the population around this concept of European values. There is the price, but the fighting for democracy and freedom is worth it.”
Paul Niland, managing director of PAN Publishing
“The Russian media is acting to continue this fight to encourage people as volunteers to come and to kill people in the east of Ukraine. And for that reason my conclusion is that the Kremlin is directly responsible for all those deaths. They are directing media campaign, they are responsible.”
“The second conclusion is as long as Russia’s media campaign against Ukraine continues we can expect the hot war continue as well. They go hand in hand one to support the other.”
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott (L) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as they meet Koalas before the start of the first G20 meeting in Brisbane on Nov. 15, 2014. © AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin has come under intense pressure from the West over Moscow’s support for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine at the G20 summit in Australia, with various leaders publicly criticising the country over the conflict.
British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Russia of “bullying a smaller state in Europe” and warned Russia that it would face further sanctions if it continues “destabilising Ukraine”.
Speaking on Saturday on the sidelines of the two-day summit in Brisbane, Cameron told the UK’s Sky News: “I am very frank when I meet with him [Putin] that the things that Russia has done in Ukraine are unacceptable.”
During a closed-door meeting between Cameron and Putin, the British leader warned that the Russian leader had a choice to make, according to sources quoted by British media.
“The prime minister was clear at the start of the Ukraine discussions that we face a fork in the road, in terms of where we go next,” the UK source reportedly said.
‘Get out of Ukraine’
Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, is reported to have told Putin at the summit to “get out of Ukraine”.
According to Jason MacDonald, Harper’s spokesman, the prime minister told the Russian leader: “I guess I will shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.”
On Saturday, members of Putin’s delegation said that he planned to leave the G20 summit early and it was reported the president was forced to eat alone at the G20 dinner on Saturday night.
Speaking on Friday at the summit, US President Barack Obama said: “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine [is] a threat to the world”.
Meanwhile, Putin said that Russia will not allow the Ukraine government to “destroy” its political opponents and adversaries in east Ukraine.
“The most important thing is that one does not have a one-sided view of the problem,” Putin said in a first brief excerpt of the interview that was broadcast by German television network ARD.
The full interview will be broadcast on Sunday evening.
“Today there is fighting taking place in the east of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has deployed troops there,” Putin told ARD, which said the interview was conducted on Thursday evening in Vladivostok.
“There have even been missiles fired, but is that mentioned? There’s not been a word on that.
“That means, that you [the Western media] want the Ukrainian government to destroy everything there, including all their political opponents and adversaries.
“Is that what you want? That is not what we want and we will not allow that to happen.”
Kiev has accused Russia of sending soldiers and weapons to help separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine to launch a new offensive in a conflict that has killed more than 4,000 people.
Russia has denied it is involved in the recent escalation in fighting in its neighbour.
World growth urged
The general agenda of the G20 summit is focused on boosting world growth, fireproofing the global banking system and closing tax loopholes for giant multinationals.
Climate change and the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa are also among the issues to be discussed.
As host, Australia will continue pushing its growth agenda, despite growing security tensions, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said at a joint news conference with Cameron.
Australia is pushing for an increase in global growth targets of two percent by 2018 to create millions of jobs.
The G20 is made up of 19 countries – Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey and the US – and the 28-member European Union.
The group accounts for 80 percent of world trade and 85 percent of global economic production.
Armed search of the Mejlis building lasting 12 hours.
Who else could achieve a return to the worst forms of Soviet repression in less than 9 months? How can remembrance of the victims of a terrible crime against humanity be banned and the use of words like ‘annexation’ and ‘occupation’ be termed ‘extremist’? Why is Vladimir Putin’s only response to the disappearances and abductions of Crimean Tatars a claim that it’s all news to him?
Vladimir Putin asserted that Russia’s effective invasion of the Crimea was to protect people and save lives. The first death was of Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar peacefully protesting against Russian annexation. Since then all deaths, disappearances and abductions have been of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian opponents of Russian rule.
The Crimean Tatars were not alone in opposing the annexation, but as the largest indigenous people of the Crimea the refusal by the Mejlis, or Crimean Tatar representative body, to support the pseudo-referendum on March 16 was a major embarrassment for Russia. It was one that the Kremlin and its puppet government in the Crimea have not forgotten.
The Soviet tactics began almost immediately. On April 22, veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev was handed a 5-year-ban on entering his homeland. This came two days after the 71-year-old former Soviet political prisoner and Ukrainian MP, on his first return to Simferopol since annexation, insisted that the Ukrainian flag be reinstated over the Mejlis building.
Since then a similar ban has been imposed on the current head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov. A major offensive has been launched against the Mejlis itself with the occupation regime clearly trying to crush a body which it has tried and failed to force into submission.
On the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars, the occupation regime banned all public events and used riot police, paramilitaries and soldiers to prevent Crimean Tatars from gathering in the centre of Simferopol as they had for the last 23 years. Even military helicopters were used over prayer gatherings on the outskirts of Simferopol and Bakhchysarai.
FSB [Security Service] surveillance and a hunt for ‘extremists’ began almost immediately. The first warning about ‘extremism’ issued to the Mejlis newspaper ‘Avdet’ was because it used such impolite terms as ‘annexation’ and ‘occupation’. Later it was again accused of extremism in reporting the Mejlis’ call to boycott the Sept 14 elections.
With such a broad understanding of ‘extremism’, anything can be expected and over recent months Russia and its puppets in the Crimea have been proving that anything will be tried. There have been a number of searches by armed men in masks of private homes, mosques and religious schools, with these most ominously coinciding with unfounded claims of radicalization of Crimean Muslims.
There have also been a number of disappearances and abductions of young Crimean Tatar men. According to Ali Khamzin from the Mejlis, Russia used such disappearances, allegations of radicalization and armed searches at the beginning of armed conflicts in Chechnya to justify more aggressive measures by the Russian enforcement bodies against particular groups.
The occupation regime has shown no real effort to find the killers of Reshat Ametov, or three civic activists in opposition to Russian rule who disappeared back in May. Quite the contrary, it is seeking to have a law passed which would provide a past and future amnesty for the so-called ‘self-defence’ paramilitaries who played a large, and often bloody, role in establishing Russian rule.
In stark contrast to this, arrests are still taking place on trumped-up charges dating back to the peaceful protest on May 3 when Mustafa Dzhemiliev was prevented from entering the Crimea. Three men were recently remanded in custody for 2 months with the prosecution and court seeming unclear whether the men were accused of ‘extremism’ or of an alleged incident back in early May.
It seems ominously clear that Moscow is trying to intimidate the Crimean Tatars into silent submission or into exile.
With world-renowned Crimean Tatar leaders banished from their homeland; disappearances and abductions of young Crimean Tatars; armed searches of mosques, religious schools and private homes and dodgy prosecutions, how could western countries even consider easing sanctions against Russia?