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Making bets in a burning house: Georgia’s anti-gambling initiative

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A couple of months ago, during a parliamentary legal committee debate on a draft bill proposing a ban on the sale and advertisement of items of a sexual nature at specific locations, Georgian Dream MP Koba Davitashvili provided the explanation that “there are two kinds of condoms: one is meant for protection, the other for satisfying sexual urges. One will be sold and the other will not be sold.” A fellow Georgian Dream MP Levan Berdzenishvili added that “a condom can have not only a protective function, but can also be used to receive pleasure if is enhanced by certain technical means.” This topic resonated among society – making some laugh, others sad, and many angry… Not long before that, the legal committee had refused to submit to plenary session a package of legislative amendments drafted by Koba Davitashvili concerning the use of narcotics and drug addict.

Koba Davitashvili has recently put forward yet another legislative initiative – this time attempting to prohibit the advertisement of gambling businesses. Georgia’s parliament has already had its first hearing on this legislative initiative. An explanatory note to the draft law identifies Davitashvili as the author of this initiative but, as a petition on the regulation of gambling businesses submitted to the parliamentary Committee for Sector Economy and Economic Policy shows, it was spearheaded by representatives of the public against gambling businesses and non-governmental organizations.

In the first paragraph of the petition the authors make declarations about the adverse effect gambling has on society and propose two solutions to this problem: first, a detailed study into the negative effects these games have on Georgian citizens and second, a ban on gambling businesses. The second section of the petition is more extensive, consisting of several sub-paragraphs. The initiative demands that the age limit for gambling be increased to 25 years and an income limit be established which would only permit those citizens whose annual income exceeds a certain figure (for example, 100,000 GEL) to gamble. Age and income limits must also be set on access to online betting. According to one of the sub-paragraphs, PLAY.TV must be taken off the air or become an encrypted channel; and bookmakers, casinos, slot clubs and similar gambling establishments must gradually be relocated away from populated areas and places of religious significance to specially allocated locations.

Among the signatories of the petition are representatives of the National-Religious institute, the Media Union Obiektivi, a Club of Former Female MPs, the Civil Front and other organizations. One can also see signatures of well-known people in Georgian society: Rezo Amashukeli, Jaba Jishakriani, Dimitri Lortkipanidze, Kakhi Kavsadze, Givi Berekashvili, Manuchar Machaidze, Jemal Chkuaseli, Elizbar Javelidze and others. Forming part of the legislative initiative, the petition is enclosed with three other documents and a film: a joint conclusion from the Anti-Drug Center at the Patriarchate of all Georgia and the Center for Addiction and Consultation; a conclusion from the Center for Mental Health and the Prevention of Drug Addiction; a conclusion of the Paata Gugushvili Institute of Economy at Tbilisi State University; and a film “Lose now, lose later.”

It is true that when gambling in casinos or bookmakers players can win or lose sums of money that might be substantial or insignificant. But this not only happens in Georgia; it occurs in numerous other and far more developed countries across the world. Under the current legislation, any person has the right to gamble in a bookmaker’s if he/she is 18 years old and in a casino if he/she is 21. The petition does not provide grounds justifying raising the age limit to 25 or setting an income limit. However, it is easy to predict that banning gambling businesses in Georgia will adversely affect revenues to the state budget. No less important is the likely social effects of a ban– hundreds of people employed in casinos, bookmakers, slot clubs and similar other institutions will lose their jobs.

The PLAY.TV channel is owned by the Imedi TV company. Imedi representatives have declined to comment on this issue, though in private they confirmed that they are aware of the legislative initiative and are in the process of considering the future functioning of that channel. We will have to wait and see whether this channel stops operating, becomes encrypted or continues as normal, but it remains unclear why the broadcasts of this channel have been put on the agenda. In short, the petition gives rise to many questions and one can only hope that competent people will set up groups to study this issue and objectively scrutinize the significant threat which adopting this legal initiative may entail.

If gambling is prohibited, the risk of industry going “underground” and operating illegally is high – something which was a normal occurrence in the country’s recent past. While the turnover of illegal bookmakers comprised tens and often hundreds of thousands of lari back then, the state budget received no benefit from their activities. Equally bad was the fact that people, including minors, used to place bets regardless of whether they were capable of paying that sum or not. The consequences of this were, naturally, quite unpleasant – some had to sell their flats, others their cars. However, owing to the intensive work of law enforcement agencies, these illegal bookmakers gradually disappeared. One can recall numerous arrests, the most high-profile of which was the arrest of former international Georgian footballer Giorgi Demetradze. To cut a long story short, when legal bookmakers disappear, the demands of consumers will be left unmet and illegal businesses will probably emerge. It is as simple as that.

The most controversial part of the legislative initiative is that concerning the prohibition of gambling advertising. The petition reads: “Any type of gambling advertising and any propagation of it shall be immediately prohibited.” Not only would companies directly engaged in the gambling business incur losses as a result of being unable to air advertisements via TV or place them in subway carriages, but also many TV companies would be left without the income they receive in the form of advertisement fees. This money, which is one of the key sources of financing for TV companies such as GMG (because of its sports channels), would no longer be available. Furthermore, given that bookmakers are traditionally the main sponsors of the broadcast of football matches and other sporting events, the adoption of this law would jeopardize the broadcast of various matches and championships.

“We will come to face a situation when we will be unable to broadcast either the Europa League or the Premier League, will be unable to show the matches of Real Madrid, tennis tournaments…” said GMG’s chief producer, Bidzina Baratashvili, during a sports program. Moreover, the broadcast of the Champions League, the Olympic Games, the Basketball World Cup, the Rugby World Cup and other significant sporting competitions by the Georgian Public Broadcaster is often sponsored by either Adjarabet or Europe-bet. There is nothing illogical in this situation; it is how it should be. Hardly anyone would be surprised by the fact that sports events are not sponsored by, for instance, detergent powder manufacturers. The interest of bookmakers towards such events is natural. As the director general of GMG, Levan Kubaneishvili, told Tabula, almost every bookmaker operating in Georgia cooperates with the TV channel in some form or another – be that in the sponsorship of a particular broadcast, a program, or something else. According to Kubaneishvili, the enactment of the law would be financially damaging for the channel, but, even if this were not the case, as there is hardly any sporting event in the world that does not have at least some involvement with bookmakers and their advertisements, should the TV channel then be unable to show such events, the entire existence of the channel would lose sense.

Bookmakers also provide financial assistance to Georgian sport and one should thus take into account the damage which various sports will suffer due to decreased funding. During the past season, Europe-bet awarded 100,000 USD to the winners of the Georgian football championship and the company’s banners could be seen in various football stadiums. Adjarabet has similarly assisted many athletes: the national basketball team’s players sport shirts bearing Adjarabet’s logo and the company is also a sponsor of Georgia’s basketball super league.

A separate issue is how civilized taking such a step would be at a time when the shirts of one of the world’s best and most distinguished football clubs – Real Madrid – is adorned with a logo of an online gambling company – bwin. At various times, this same company has sponsored the likes of Milan, Manchester United, Werder Bremen, Juventus Turin and other football clubs and, since 2006, has financed the European and World Basketball Cups. Such bookmaking companies are in abundance and listing them here would take a very long time; suffice to say, that online betting companies sponsor various types of sport – from auto racing to horseracing – and assist numerous competitions and teams in return for sportsmen wearing shirts adorned with their logos. No one would ever think of prohibiting advertising these companies in, for example, Great Britain or Spain. Real Madrid sells 1.5 million football shirts worldwide annually and it is very likely that a significant segment of those buying the shirts are minors. But does anyone know how many of them are encouraged to gamble by the inscription of “bwin” on their shirts? Since they have neither imposed a ban, nor made such alarming calls against gambling businesses, one can assume that the West does not see a problem such as the likes of Koba Davitashvili see in Georgia.

“To impose controls on the internet is one of my key objectives,” Davitashvili said at the Radio One press club. It would be interesting to see how he intends to do that. Hopefully, he will not resort to those methods applied in North Korea, Myanmar or Cuba, where the use of the internet is prohibited for everyone save for an extremely privileged bunch of people. Today the rise of online gambling and the fact that many people in Georgia have a computer and internet access at home, has decreased the number of people who physically visit an establishment to place a bet. This form of gambling is now done only by those people who are either nostalgic about betting slips and the atmosphere in such establishments, or those who have no access to the internet. The largest segment of players today will gamble without leaving their homes. A minor is not allowed to access online betting – to register one needs to provide his/her ID number and, without this, no winnings (if there are any) get issued. There are instances where minors have used adults’ IDs to register and have subsequently, with their assistance, received winnings. How does Mr. Koba Davitashvili intend to prevent such instances? After all, it would be interesting to see whether there is any data showing how many minors use such sites and what sums they lose. It would be better and more civilized to simply cooperate with bookmakers to minimize such instances rather than applying, for example, North Korea’s draconian methods. Blocking access to online betting for those people who, every now and then, bet small amounts, from between 2 to 5 GEL, just for fun and to add to the excitement of live sporting events would definitely be unfair.

Let’s hope that parliament will take into account those significant aspects which the adoption of this law may entail.

 

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