Casinos and slot-machine halls shut down across Russia on Wednesday as a new law took effect that put sweeping new restrictions on the country's formerly boisterous gaming industry.
Tens of thousands of people were expected to lose their jobs as a result of the law, which was signed in 2006 by then-president Vladimir Putin in a bid to halt the spread of gambling addiction.
AdvertisementUnder the law, casinos are only allowed to operate in four remote regions, each at least 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from Moscow and some as far away as Siberia and Russia's Pacific Ocean coast.
The impact was immediately visible on Novy Arbat, a street in central Moscow that had been called Russia's Las Vegas because of its gaudy casinos decorated with large neon signs.
"The casino is closed in accordance with the law," said a sign on the Korona casino, while workers hauled slot machines wrapped in plastic out of the nearby Metelitsa casino.
Moscow authorities set up a special task force to ensure compliance with the law, which inspected more than 500 gambling venues in the Russian capital overnight, said Leonid Krutakov, a spokesman for the Moscow city government.
"All of them are closed in compliance with the federal law," Krutakov was quoted as saying by RIA-Novosti news agency.
"Law-enforcement agencies will stop attempts at illegal activity, and organizers of the gaming business will answer to the law. We will not allow gambling addiction to continue damaging the social health of Muscovites."
The law marks the end of an era that began in the 1990s, when businessmen and gangsters who acquired fantastic wealth in Russia's post-communist turmoil gambled it away in lavish casinos.
From seedy slot-machine parlours to extravagant casinos for the new rich, gambling establishments seemingly popped up overnight after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
But Putin, who once called gambling addiction "even stronger than addiction to alcohol" and is now Russia's prime minister, stopped the industry in its tracks with a law that literally exiles casinos to Siberia.
Starting July 1 casinos may only operate in Russia's western Kaliningrad exclave, along the Azov Sea in the south, in the Altai region of Siberia, and in the far eastern Primorye region, near North Korea and Japan.
However casinos have been reluctant to move to the four designated legal gambling zones, given their undeveloped infrastructure and the difficulty of attracting customers to the far-flung regions.
Some casinos are expected to refashion themselves into poker clubs under a quirk of Russian law that officially recognises poker as a sport rather than a game of chance. But playing for money will be forbidden.
The gambling law is expected to have the biggest impact on Moscow, which had 524 casinos and gaming halls before the law took effect, and Saint Petersburg, which had 109.
That has raised concerns about the impact of job losses just as Russia is struggling with the effects of the global economic crisis.
The Russian Association for Gaming Business Development, a trade group, has said the law will cost 350,000 jobs and deprive the state of two billion dollars of tax revenues, but official estimates are much lower.
Moscow officials have said just over 10,000 people may become unemployed in the Russian capital.
At Novy Arbat on Wednesday, two men in suits stood next to an expensive sportscar staring at the boarded-up Arbat casino, where they used to work, and lamented the impact of the new law.
"More than 1,000 people worked there. Of course it's sad," said Andrei, who refused to give his last name and said only that he had worked in security for the casino.
But Sergei Kakeyev, a 24-year-old standing nearby, described the new law as positive. "They did the right thing. Many of my friends gambled, though I didn't get excited by that," Kakeyev said. "They lost a lot of money."
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