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Does Turkey Want Georgia to Close Casinos?

Betting on tourism as an important lifeline, Georgia has become a place where Turks, Arabs and Israelis can convene around a poker table. But, to hear ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili tell it, one of the country’s neighbors, Turkey, wants the casinos to close.
 
In a meeting last week with regional reporters, Ivanishvili, founder of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream Party, claimed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had personally asked him to do away with Georgia’s gambling business a few years back, when both men served as prime ministers of their respective countries.
 
Watching fellow Turks return with empty wallets from neighboring Georgia apparently had taken its toll on Erdoğan, a practicing Muslim. Islam forbids gambling, and so does Turkey.
 
The Turkish embassy in Georgia told Tamada Tales, however, that the 2013 meeting with Ivanishvili happened too long ago for it to be able to comment about the two men’s conversation.
 
Nonetheless, the attractions of Georgia’s casinos for Turkish gamblers are clear.
 
With gambling banned in all of its Muslim neighbors – Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan – Georgia has essentially become the region’s Vegas (Armenia ranks a distant second) – an unimaginable status 21 years ago, when the James Bond movie “Golden Eye” depicted a Georgian-born honey trap playing a game of baccarat with OO7.
 
Georgia’s casino capital, the Black Sea city of Batumi, is only a short drive from the Turkish border. Many of Batumi’s casinos have Turkish investment, and are run by and cater to Turks, local media report.
 
But the proliferation of gambling has caused grumbling on Georgia’s side of the border as well.
 
For all the tax revenue it generates – some 66 million lari (up to $29 million) in 2015, according to the Revenue Service – gambling is seen by many Georgians as an undignified business, taking a heavy toll on households. Data on the extent of Georgia’s gambling addictions is not available, but stories abound of addicts pilfering away family savings and income at casinos and slot machines.
 
That is the scene that comes to mind at one popular gambling site in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo neighborhood. At night, young men hanging around outside the facility routinely hit up passers-by for spare cash – allegedly for a ride home, to the city’s outskirts. But wait a bit, and you will see them hop into the gambling center rather than a cab.
 
Ivanishvili, his eye on Georgia’s upcoming October 8 parliamentary election, is among those who believe that stronger measures should be taken to curb these urges. He has floated the idea of a law that would prevent local young people from going into Batumi’s casinos. If left to himself, he said, he would have closed the casinos while prime minister (2012-2013), but was duty-bound to recognize their financial contribution to Georgia’s economy.
 
Support for doing so definitely exists. The populist Labor Party has made closing the casinos part of its campaign platform, and individual politicians have addressed the idea as well.
 
Some celebrities, economists, commentators and, most notably, the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church, also have spoken out against gambling.
 
But, so far, no serious restriction has come out of it. In 2013, parliament set up a commission to examine a proposal to move casinos out of city centers and into special zones, but no further action was taken. The Batumi casinos objected that they employ locals, pay taxes and attract tourists.
 
A clear anti-gambling initiative before the elections is unlikely, but Ivanishvili’s comments suggest that the ruling party is weighing the demands of voters … and, reportedly, those of the Turkish president. 

Does Turkey Want Georgia to Close Casinos?

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