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Estonia: Europe’s little Las Vegas

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Seventy gambling rooms in Tallinn and 3,800 active gambling machines for its 5,000 inhabitants. It's a big game of chance in the little Baltic republic

What does a European Las Vegas mean for the Estonians, who joined the EU in 2004? 'I come here about once a week,' says 26-year-old Raili, who we catch as she is leaving one of the casinos in the centre of Tallinn. 'I have fun here with my friends. There are those who spend hours on a PlayStation, and others who prefer the thrill of the game. It’s just like any other pastime.'

But according to the Estonian Gambling Operator Association (EGOA), in 2005 this activity alone bore a dividend of around 75 million Euros. It is a figure that makes you think, especially considering that, after independence from the Soviet Union in the first half of the 1990s, the little country was known as the 'washing machine' for dirty money.

Drawing dead

'The casinos and the Mafia? We don’t talk about it much, but it is obvious that they are interlinked,' explains Karl, an ex-police officer. Tonis Ruutel, President of the EGOA, vociferously defends gambling. 'Casinos are definitely not the best way to launder money: with all the taxes we have to pay, it would be a lot simpler to use a restaurant. Of course it used to be a problem, but today the rules for money laundering in Estonia are a lot harsher than the European average.' This may be, but the volume of business is undeniable, and the Estonian state is sure to have strong interests in the game.

Thanks to the gambling industry, in 2006 alone, the state filled its coffers with around 19 million Euros. 'I think that the names of all the people who committed suicide because of gambling addiction should be engraved on the walls of the KUMU Museum, the new national modern art museum, which was built thanks to the funds from the tax on games of chance,' remarks Anton, father of a thirty-something-year-old who committed suicide after having gambled and lost all his possessions. 1% of the Estonian population suffers from gambling addiction.

In a country that only numbers 1.5 million inhabitants, that 1% of gambling addicts suffers from a real illness that can ruin the lives of entire generations. Such was the story of Avo Viiol, ex-manager of the Fund for Furthering Culture who, a few years ago, was arrested and put in prison for having stolen about 500,000 Euros from the state to satisfy his thirst for gambling. He was ordered to repay in full.

On this point, even the gambling houses have tried to act to preserve their image, but, having to lock horns with a legislation that blocks access to 'clients', they have created a system that enables them to shut the door on those customers who have found the courage to seek help from the EGOA. It is a measure that has recently been joined by an initiative financed by the European Union. An institute has been created, where psychologists and psychotherapists work together to assist those who believe they have a real gambling problem.

Business, entertainment and… addiction. A trio that often ends in tragedy and that Mr Ruutel naturally does not accept, who does not play at all. 'I have better things to do.'

Translated from La Las Vegas europea? È in Estonia