North Ossetia: Blasts Prompt Gambling Hall Crackdown

Authorities close republic’s gaming houses after two were targeted in bomb attacks.

North Ossetia: Blasts Prompt Gambling Hall Crackdown

Authorities close republic’s gaming houses after two were targeted in bomb attacks.

Thursday, 16 February, 2006

The authorities are viewing as terrorist acts bomb blasts that rocked two gambling halls last week in central Vladikavkaz – although some officials believe the outrages bore the hallmarks of the mafia.

The February 1 explosions in the North Ossetian capital killed two and injured more than twenty. One of the dead was Madina Dzotsieva, 26, a doctor who ran to help the wounded after the first blast.

Police have created computer likenesses of three suspects and opened a criminal case on three counts: terrorism, murder of two or more people, and unlawful possession and transportation of explosive devices.

The explosions took place in the Modern Rest and the Honest Game gambling halls at around 9:20 pm, while they were open for business.

A guard at Modern Rest found a suspicious package, which he removed into the street. The bomb exploded before the police arrived, but no one was hurt, though the building’s front was damaged slightly.

Shortly after, a second explosion detonated in the Honest Game club, some 400 metres away. A third explosion then rocked the club, killing and injuring many who had returned to inspect the damage and tend to the injured.

The three explosions were spaced roughly two to three minutes apart.

Law enforcement officials said that the perpetrators used explosives with timing mechanisms, filled with nails. Later officials said the bombs, each which equivalent to 300 grammes of TNT, had been detonated remotely.

North Ossetian leader Taimuraz Mamsurov called an emergency government meeting immediately following the blasts and announced the closure of all gambling houses throughout the republic, without exception.

“We will be absolutely firm on this, no one will frighten us,” said Mamsurov, indicating he expected resistance from some circles.

This announcement, which violates a federal law on private business, went into effect immediately.

North Ossetia’s gambling businesses have grown exponentially in past years, with a large number of game halls, offering computerised roulette and blackjack machines, opening throughout Vladikavkaz. As these game halls multiplied, they’ve replaced in some instances more traditional casinos.

“People simply realised it was a way to make money,” one casino co-owner, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR.

“Since roulette tables carry a heavy tax and often lose money, even big casinos have started to install simple game machines.”

According to the casino owner, the large amount of federal assistance funds that flooded North Ossetia after the Beslan extremist attacks in September 2004 have also helped fuel the growth in the gambling industry.

“Suddenly people had money to gamble with,” he said.

Even before the bombings, public opinion in some circles was extremely negative toward the gambling halls. Local newspapers publicised the cases of several young people who killed themselves after suffering heavy losses.

As a result, government officials on a number of occasions raised the question of control over gaming. In autumn 2005, North Ossetia’s parliament passed a law aimed at tightening restrictions on the industry.

Authorities closed 136 gambling halls in the first days after the law came into effect.

Parliamentary deputy Kazbek Fidarov, one of the law’s architects, told IWPR that even if the explosions had not taken place, officials would have shut “90-95 per cent of all gambling institutions”.

However, some violations still took place. The Honest Game gambling hall, site of one of the explosions, continued to operate, although it was located opposite a school, in direct violation of the new legislation.

IWPR learned that after the law was adopted, some club owners had planned to protest to Russia's constitutional court.

“When the law was passed, it was clear that sooner or later they would close us down, so we decided to appeal,” said a businessman, who wished to remain unnamed.

“No one will do this now. After people have been killed, I will push for the closure of these businesses myself.”

Parliamentary deputy Fidarov said President Mamsurov had long wanted to close the gambling houses, despite the large amount of income they generated for the republic’s government.

“Mamsurov told us in January 2005 that we didn't need gambling businesses’ taxes,” said Fidarov. “We should be concerned instead with those who were suffering [because of the gambling business].”

Fidarov, who is also head of the parliamentary budgetary committee, said that the gaming industry contributes 80 million rubles in taxes every year to North Ossetia's annual budget, which has total annual revenues of nine billion rubles (about 320 million US dollars).

“The money would be enough to build two schools or one hospital,” said the deputy. “Now we won't have this money, but if that is the price we have to pay, we don't need it.”

Fidarov acknowledged that Mamsurov did not strictly follow the letter of the law in closing the gambling halls, but said that extraordinary measures were called for “in order to save the public”.

Details about the explosions suggest that they may have been extremist acts carried out with the aim of taking lives. Deputy Public Prosecutor Aleksander Panov pointed to the fact that the bombs were full of nails.

If the bombings are officially acknowledged as terrorist acts, it will be the first such incident to take lives in North Ossetia since the Beslan tragedy.

However, one senior source in the republic's interior ministry, who wishes to remain unnamed, supports the hypothesis that this is a criminal case.

“These are criminals settling scores,” he said. “There are more than 300 gambling halls in town, and more than 5,000 people are involved in the business, so there is strong competition.”

“This business is criminalised. It is inevitable that this will continue in the future.”

It is still unclear whether the gambling halls will remain permanently closed. Alikhan Khugaev, executive secretary of the social movement For a United Ossetia, believes the government will be faced with heavy pressure to reverse its decision.

“The money involved in this business is huge, and what is more, we are not talking about the odd businessmen, but an entire mafia,” he said.

Alan Tskhurbaev is an independent journalist in Vladikavkaz.

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