Russian Roulette casino

A billion on Siberia, please

THE shiny new Tigre de Cristal casino looks like a black glass and steel spacecraft that has landed in the Siberian forest. A neon sign advertises “Seafood delicacies from the Sea of Japan”. Inside, Russian ladies deal out baccarat cards to Chinese gamblers. The casino itself represents a bit of a bet: that Russia can tap some of the cash from rising Asian economies to help develop its own Far East, a territory larger than the European Union that is home to just 6m people.

Though the Far East is staunchly Russian, it has grown dependent on its Asian neighbours. Some regions do 85% of their foreign trade with China. Europe feels a world away. When Russia’s economy was booming, locals took their holidays at Chinese resorts and popped over the border for cheap massages and shopping.

Since the collapse of the rouble the flow has reversed. Chinese shoppers come to buy Russian food, which they think safer than their own chemical-ridden produce. Others come for a bit of Europe. Li Tsang, a hairdresser from Fuyuan, raves about Khabarovsk, just across the Amur river: “It’s so clean!”

At Tigre de Cristal, the brainchild of Lawrence Ho, son of the Macao mogul Stanley Ho, investors are banking on an influx of gamblers from north-east China, South Korea and Japan. “Within a two- or three-hour radius, you have 200m-300m people under-served from a gambling perspective, ” says Craig Ballantyne, the casino’s upbeat Scottish manager.

The fate of such foreign-backed projects depends on Russia providing the conditions for success. For Tigre de Cristal, little went smoothly. A bizarre legislative oversight means that it is illegal to advertise the casino: with the exception of a handful of special gaming zones, gambling is banned in Russia. The launch was postponed because of bureaucratic hassles. Even with the delay, the local government failed to revamp the main road from the airport in time for the grand opening, much to the chagrin of casino staff. “When Disneyland opened, ” Mr Ballantyne notes pointedly, “the Santa Ana highway was finished.”

Correction: In “The gauge of history” in our Christmas issue, a portrait was wrongly described as showing Fyodor Shekhtel, a Russian architect. The subject was in fact Savva Mamontov, a Russian industrialist and patron of the arts.

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