Page last updated at 04:38 GMT, Saturday, 20 February 2010
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow
Illegal gambling has spread rapidly across Russia since a new law came into force last July banning casinos and slots machines in towns and cities, according to a senior police officer in an exclusive interview with the BBC.
Col Oleg Bolderov of the economic crimes department of the Russian police said they had carried out thousands of raids over the past eight months.
"We have closed down 70 casinos and 4,000 slot-machine arcades... and have brought 600 criminal cases against those trying to organise this (illegal gambling)," he said.
A police video of one of the raids given to the BBC shows heavily armed officers dressed in black, breaking into an illegal casino and catching the staff and punters red-handed.
Brandishing automatic weapons, two police officers stand over a poker table busy with startled gamblers.
But despite the crackdown, well-placed sources connected to the formerly legal gambling industry say underground gambling dens continue to flourish in the capital, Moscow, and in St Petersburg, while in more far-flung cities very little actually changed when the law came into force last July.
There are also allegations that some senior police officers are actively offering to protect illegal casinos in return for huge pay-offs.
"We were approached by a police official who told us that for $400,000 per month we could stay open," said one source who wished to remain anonymous.
Even Col Bolderov admits that authorities are fighting a losing battle against the continuing huge demand for gambling as well as against corrupt officials.
"One of the most probable explanations for the rise of illegal gambling is corruption," he says.
"In our police department, we do our best to close down underground casinos and slot-machine halls and we have some success.
"But in parts of Russia, gambling remains rife. Why? Because of corruption."
In the centre of Moscow it is easy to find slot-machine arcades operating openly, although slightly more discreetly than before.
And it took just a few phone calls to arrange a visit to an illegal casino.
I was told to leave my bag behind to ensure I had no recording equipment or cameras with me.
The owner then led me through corridors and heavy doors, which could only be opened using special security codes, into the casino.
It was not large but it had pristine poker tables, a roulette wheel and hi-tech slot machines.
At the bar, a lone gambler, his back turned to me, nursed a drink.
According to industry sources the illegal casinos were up and running just four months after the ban came into force.
The new law, which should have put an end to gambling in Russia's towns and cities, was pushed through by the former president and now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.
Casinos and slot-machine arcades had come to dominate city centres with their gaudy neon entrances.
The gambling industry, which was resurrected after the collapse of the Soviet Union almost twenty years ago, had grown to be worth around $6bn (4.4bn euros, £3.9bn) a year.
And the number of addicts was also growing.
The government's plan was to banish gambling to four specially-designated zones in the remotest regions of the country.
But the zones were so remote that none of the big casino operators was prepared to invest the huge sums of money required to have the slightest chance of attracting gamblers to travel so far.
So for the most part, they remain empty plots of land.
In a forlorn ceremony earlier this month however, one casino in one of the regions did finally open its doors.
It is at least a two hour drive from the nearest city and airport, in the middle of nowhere in the far south of the country.
No other casinos have been built so far in any of the regions.
Already there are calls for the law to be revised on the basis that it has simply driven gambling underground and provided corrupt officials with yet another opportunity to solicit bribes.
National Economic Trends
Itar-Tass: Putin allocates RUB 5 bln to encourage grain sales from intervention stock
ST. PEETERSBUR, February 20 (Itar-Tass) -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin decreed to allocate over five billion rubles to encourage grain sales from the country’s intervention stock, spokesman for the Russian head of government Dmitry Peskov told Itar-Tass on Saturday.
“Further to measures of support to domestic farmers, in particular grain producers, Putin signed a resolution allocating five billion and 36 million rubles in subsidies to encourage grain sales from the intervention stock,” Peskov said.
According to Peskov, this measure will “increase the share of Russian grain on the international market.”
Bloomberg: Ruble Bond Sales Poised for Record This Year as Yields Tumble
By Denis Maternovsky
Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Russian companies are likely to sell a record amount of ruble bonds this year after a drop in yields and reduced currency swings.
Domestic corporate bond sales will reach at least 1 trillion rubles ($33 billion), up from 814 billion rubles last year and 533 billion rubles in 2008, according to Trust Investment Bank in Moscow and ING Groep NV, the biggest Dutch financial-services company.
Yields on bonds sold by Russia’s biggest companies have fallen by half to an average 8 to 9 percent in the past year as the central bank cut its refinancing rate 11 times to a record low of 8.5 percent today, according to data compiled by Moscow- based VTB Capital, the investment-banking unit of Russia’s second-biggest lender. The central bank may lower its benchmark interest rate another 150 basis points by the middle of this year, according to UniCredit SpA.
“Companies with ruble-denominated revenue should now think twice before borrowing in foreign currency,” said Stanislav Ponomarenko, a fixed-income analyst at ING in Moscow.
Yields on benchmark government ruble bonds due 2036 dropped 4.5 percentage points since August 2009 to an 18-month low of 8.1 percent yesterday. That compares with a 2 percentage-point decline in the yield on Russia’s 2030 dollar bonds to 5.4 percent in the same period.
Ruble bonds due 2012 sold by OAO Gazprom, the country’s biggest company, yield 8.2 percent, down 5.4 percentage points from when they were issued in June. The yield on the company’s dollar bond due in 2013 fell 3 percentage points to 5.3 percent in the same period.
The cost of borrowing in dollars may be higher for companies looking to protect themselves against currency swings raising their repayment costs. Three-year non-deliverable forwards, or NDFs, show the ruble weakening by 6.86 percent a year against the dollar.
The central bank let the ruble depreciate 35 percent between August 2008 and January 2009, making it more expensive for companies reliant on ruble earnings to service foreign debt. The currency has since strengthened 20 percent against the dollar and its one-month volatility has halved, Bloomberg data show.
Bank Rossii helped to spur the ruble bond market since the credit crisis began by accepting a wider range of the securities as collateral for loans. That allowed commercial banks to borrow more cheaply from the central bank by using interest-paying bonds as collateral.
“This is the major reason why ruble debt is so popular at the moment,” said Denis Poryvai, a fixed-income analyst at UralSib Financial Corp., the Moscow-based lender owned by billionaire Nikolai Tsvetkov. “If the central bank stops accepting bonds as collateral we’d see the market collapse and yields surge 4 or 5 percentage points,” Poryvai said, adding that he expects the central bank to retain the program for the foreseeable future. “This will be a record year.”
While Russia is seeking to raise as much as $17.8 billion in its first sale of bonds to international investors in more than a decade, the government has cautioned companies against taking on too much foreign debt.
Companies led by state-run energy producers OAO Gazprom and OAO Rosneft raised more than $250 billion abroad in the three years before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008, according to Bloomberg data. Foreign borrowing fell to a five-year low of $35 billion last year, with almost all of it used for refinancing.
$11 Billion Bailout
VEB, the state development bank chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, stepped in at the height of the crisis in the fourth quarter of 2008 to lend $11 billion to companies deemed strategic to the economy. The government will monitor the foreign debt of state-run companies more closely to limit their exposure to exchange-rate swings, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said in December.
“The government is trying to limit foreign-currency borrowing for state-run entities,” ING’s Ponomarenko said.
OAO Mobile Telesystems, or MTS, the country’s biggest mobile operator, sold 15 billion rubles of 14.25 percent notes in July and is considering more ruble debt sales.
“Our policy has changed,” acting Chief Financial Officer Alexei Kornya said in an e-mailed response to questions from Bloomberg. “The company is now much more active raising debt on the ruble market and the significant part of our debt portfolio is now ruble-denominated.”
OAO Russian Railways, the largest issuer of ruble notes last year, plans to sell 200 billion rubles of the securities this year. It last sold bonds on Feb. 4, when it raised 15 billion rubles of 9 percent notes maturing in 2025. Gazprom, the world’s biggest gas company, said Feb. 12 it plans to sell 300 billion rubles of domestic bonds over the next five years.
“Domestic liquidity is very good and there is good demand to both buy and issue at current levels,” said Eugene Belin, the head of fixed income at Citigroup Inc., who has helped manage bond sales for Gazprom, Russian Agricultural Bank and steelmaker OAO Severstal in the last year. “We’ve seen a lot of interest this year and there is more to come.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Denis Maternovsky in Moscow at email@example.com
Last Updated: February 19, 2010 03:59 EST