Long shielded by law enforcement in the Western Balkans, gambling operations are now in police cross-hairs.
By Aleksandar Pavlevski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 21/05/12
Gambling is becoming increasingly common in the region, a worrisome trend given its links to addiction and crime-related activity. It also has a far wider implication beyond stories of individual hardships: a potentially massive negative effect on the economy in general.
In Greece, a country fileted by budget cuts, Evgenios Giannakopoulos, the head of the watchdog agency Committee of Surveillance and Control of Gaming, estimates that revenue from illegal games amounts to over 7 billion euros annually, none of which flows into the budget.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has an estimated 1,250 registered venues for different types of betting and gambling, putting BiH at the top of list of Europe in terms of volume. Second on the list is Serbia which, according to official statistics, offers 1,208 registered betting venues.
But it's the unregistered ones that keep revenue out of state coffers.
"It is assumed that there are as many sports betting [facilities] that work in the grey zone. Therefore the state budget loses tens of millions euros annually," Zoran Puhac, of the Serbian Association of Gaming Providers, told SETimes, noting that the same is likely true in BiH.
And in BiH, where one out of every five people plays a game of chance, about 500,000 people could be considered addicted.
In the face of all this, some countries in the region are banding together to fight gambling-related crime, including in one operation, seizing thousands of gambling machines worth over 10m euros.
"Gambling has increased significantly in the last years as the economic crisis progresses. The impoverished citizens seek refuge in gambling, both legalised and illegal gambling in Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo. Recent police operations have a crucial, positive impact on the whole society in the region," Trajche Arsov, a lawyer from Skopje who works on gambling related cases, told SETimes.
One ongoing action, dubbed Detonator, has cleared much of the crime in the eastern part of Macedonia. In four cities alone, police seized around 840 poker machines and other games of chance. About 30 people were arrested for illegally operating gambling businesses, and many others are still being sought. The difference this time is that police are smashing rings, not protecting them.
"Detonator represents the dark side of society and the participation of power among individuals or groups who hide behind the veil of real or fictitious political and police protection. Such people for many years managed to terrorise and intimidate ... the population in small and economically disadvantaged towns," Frosina Remenski, a professor at the Faculty of Security in Skopje, told SETimes.
According to Minister of Internal Affairs Gordana Jankulovska, the old days of protecting criminals are over.
"I would like to say to all those who think they can hide behind political affiliation, profession or their engagement in some institution, that nothing can help them if they have committed a crime and all of them will be brought to justice."
The group arrested recently in Macedonia allegedly extorted money from owners of local bars, used threats and violence, organised illegal gambling and were involved with illegal drug trafficking and excise goods. And this, in essence, was just the tip of the iceberg, says Arsov.
What began with the seizure of over 800 slot machines ended with the detection of casinos operating without licenses, failing to declare income or taxes, and hiring undocumented workers, he said. It "opens a space for expansion of the criminal investigation against other offenders ...in the capacity of helpers, instigators or accomplices. Here I think primarily of officials from the Customs Administration without whom not a single slot machine could enter unnoticed."
He also cites "the responsible persons in the Public Revenue Office who missed regular checks on the operation of each individual casino. All these people are an important link in the chain of organised crime, out of the boundaries of states, because without their help [crimes] can hardly be implemented. These kind of actions also happened in Serbia."
Much of the illegal gambling equipment in Macedonia comes from Bulgaria and Kosovo, and that connection is not lost on experts.
"The process of ordering, payment, transport, entering the country, customs and forwarding documentation, internal transportation, local accommodation and use of the appliances must be clues that should prove ... the responsibility of competent authorities and persons who were required to prevent and report the illegal entry of poker devices," Remenski said.
She explained that the gambling business and lottery are under intense monitoring in the EU and member states such as Bulgaria, to reduce the economic and financial crime and money laundering and prevent conditions for the emergence of illegal businesses associated with hazardous games and the illegal entry of poker devices.
"Operation Detonator showed how this kind of business can be cross border," added Remenski.
However, Detonator has not expanded to western parts of Macedonia, like Tetovo, Gostivar, Debar and Struga, where police have information that crime groups from Kosovo, Albania, and other countries are associated with local criminal clans.
"These kinds of groups exist in Tetovo, along with illegal gambling. Even children know. As soon as darkness falls, gambling places are opened. They seem like ordinary shops and stores. They have guests from Kosovo and Albania, and they [mean] great earning to the local owners of illegal gambling," Arben Shpatimi, 60, from Tetovo, told SETimes.
"I am sorry for the young people who are more and more into this dirty business. I have grandchildren who [focus on] sports betting the whole day. They don't work at anything and they spend the money that their parents earn," he added.
A recent survey of young people in Montenegro found that 43% of minors wagered on sports betting or other games of chance. This, though the law prohibits young people from entering actual gaming facilities.
Olivera Komar, of the research agency DeFacto Consultants, found that the average age to begin sports betting is 11, and that the youngest respondent was only five. The reasons most commonly cited by the young were financial gain, adrenaline rush and entertainment.