Let’s be honest, not many of us know much about Kyrgyzstan. I doubt that most people in the West could even pinpoint it on a globe. But here’s the thing, the government of Kyrgyzstan has stated its wish to reopen the country to casinos, a decade after closure, in order to replenish the much-needed millions that have been lost following that original decision.
Kyrgyzstan’s President, Sadyr Japarov, says that the initiative to open a gambling zone in the resort region of Issyk-Kul Lake is aimed at replenishing the nation’s budget. Going further, the President has voiced his support for the opening of casinos in all regions of the country.
“I gave instructions to the Presidential Executive Office, the Parliament, to develop a proposal to open a casino in Bishkek, all regions and cities of the republic,” he said, adding that “money is leaving the country. With the opening of gambling establishments money, on the contrary, will come to the Republic.”
“There’s gold in them there hills”
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked nation, bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. It has a population of 6.5 million and is home to three World Heritage sites, including the historic ‘Silk Road’ trade route that joined China to Europe and the Middle East. Its currency is the Som (KGS), with US$1.00 currently worth around KGS85.00. Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, and despite being classified as the second poorest nation in Central Asia, it is rich in valuable metal reserves, including gold and uranium. From the outside looking in, it seems logical to suggest that the foundations for strong economic development could be in place.
Opposition in all its usual forms
But President Japarov is facing strong opposition. Kyrgyzstan has a 90% Muslim population, and the country did indeed suffer problems associated with gambling in years gone by, including widespread allegations of under-age play. But Japarov is a determined leader, arguing that these were rumours, supported by officials of the time who sought to ‘shake-down’ law-abiding casino owners. And his solution is an obvious one, to only open the new casinos for foreigners, barring all citizens of Kyrgyzstan from entry.
The parliamentary vote in favour of the Issyk-Kul project took pace over a year ago and there has been much bad blood since. Opponents claim they were intimidated into voting in favour, while supporters say the intimidation came from the opponents, invoking the holy month of Ramadan as a reason not to vote for the Bill. The result of this in-fighting is that subsequent readings of the draft Bill are yet to take place.
Currently the subject of public discussion, the draft law to reintroduce casinos, has also attracted criticism on economic grounds. One obvious question is whether there would be enough demand from foreign visitors to make casinos viable.
President is confident and determined
But President Japarov is both confident and determined. The Issyk-Kul Lake area is indeed beautiful, with noticeable tourist potential. The President’s plan is to only grant licences to developers and operators that commit to building luxury hotel and resort complexes. Such licences will generate millions of dollars, as will the local taxes that will follow. And in a move that is designed to appease his opponents, Japarov has instructed lawmakers to ensure that the new law prohibits all Kyrgyzstanis from entering these casinos. This will include citizens with dual citizenship and will, according to the President, be strictly controlled. “If a casino violates the rules and requirements, the licence will be revoked,” he said.
New casino development opportunities are always accompanied by risk, especially in ‘virgin’ countries and territories that do not appear to be particularly wealthy. And tourism is an easy hook to throw out, but when that is also unproven, then the risk increases. Kyrgyzstan is clearly a fascinating country, with some unrivalled beauty spots, and it will be interesting to see who President Japarov engages with, if and when this legislation comes into effect.