YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The Armenian government has formally asked the National Assembly to approve its plans to move casinos further away from Yerevan, prompting criticism from the parliament’s opposition minority and some pro-government lawmakers.
The assembly began debating on Tuesday a government bill that would essentially bar casinos and other gambling sites from operating anywhere except Armenia’s three most popular resort towns starting from January 2013. Casino owners would be allowed to do business in Yerevan and other parts of the country only if they invest at least 37 billion drams ($98 million) in a particular property.
The vast majority of Armenian casinos are presently located just outside Yerevan. A law that took effect in January 2003 banned gambling activity within the capital.
The government says that by largely confining the gambling business to the towns of Jermuk, Tsaghkadzor and Sevan it would spur the development of Armenia’s main tourism destinations and at the same time lower the number of regular casino visitors. Representatives of the two opposition parties represented in the Armenian parliament dismissed this explanation.
“It is not the first time that we can see concrete entrepreneurs and high-ranking government officials behind legislative changes,” claimed Armen Martirosian of the Heritage party. “If you take a close look, you will see that two of those towns are linked with the names of two presidents [Serzh Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian,] while the other, Sevan, with one oligarch.”
Ara Nranian, a parliament deputy from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also alleged a government bid to monopolize the industry. “If we accept the variant proposed by the government we will have four monopoly centers that will control the whole gambling business,” he said.
Nranian said at the same time that the proposed casino relocation would fill the three towns with “criminal elements that would form a not quite favorable and moral atmosphere around themselves.” “I’m sure many citizens would refrain from going to Jermuk or Sevan on holiday,” he said.
Karine Hakobian, head of the Reform non-governmental organization, expressed similar concerns on Wednesday during a roundtable discussion with Deputy Finance Minister Vartan Aramian and Vartan Ayvazian, chairman of the parliament committee on economic development.
“I would rather like to see casinos located in Yerevan than in those small towns,” said Hakobian. “Why? Because it’s easier to ‘contaminate’ a small place.”
“Is Monte Carlo contaminated? Is Great Britain contaminated?” Aramian countered, defending the legislation.
Ayvazian, for his part, said he doubts that many casinos would relocate to the more remote areas. But he said his committee only objects to the amount of fixed taxes which the government wants to levy from casinos after 2012.
Under the government bill, the casinos would have to pay an annual fee of 400 million drams. Ayvazian, who is affiliated with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, said the government should differentiate between casinos located in or near Yerevan and other parts of the country. The parliament committee believes that a maximum casino tax should be set at 1 billion drams, he said.
But Aramian spoke out against the proposal. He said higher taxes could seriously hurt the entire gambling sector.