On Thursday, Oct. 25, the parliament of Albania passed a law outlawing most gambling throughout the country. This includes online real money gaming, brick-and-mortar slot machine parlors, and physical betting shops. Exempted from the new rules are the national lottery, casinos within designated tourist areas, and gaming establishments located outside residential areas on the outskirts of towns. The new law will go into effect at the beginning of 2019.
[UPDATE: JANUARY 18, 2019]
As anticipated, the gambling ban took effect in Albania on Jan. 1. Over the next week or so, thousands of betting shops closed down while police took strong enforcement actions against those attempting to circumvent the law. Ordinary citizens were encouraged to report any illegal gaming they encountered.
A handful of people were arrested for breaking the gambling law. Two of them were accused of operating online gambling sites from within Albania.
As part of the authorities' strategy for combating internet gambling, the Electronic and Postal Communications Authority (AKEP) has directed ISPs to block 343 sites enumerated in a blacklist. They include prominent names in the world of online betting, like Pokerstars, 888poker, William Hill, bet365, and bwin. Even a few non-operator domains related to gambling, like the affiliate program BestPartners and the betting information site Soccer Tips King, have been included on the list of prohibited URLs.
Reports from the ground suggest, however, that internet gambling is still widely available in Albania. There has been some success in blocking users' access via smartphones, but most proscribed websites can still be viewed from Albanian IP addresses using desktops or laptops. Most observers expect that enforcing a total ban on real money offshore gaming websites will prove technologically unworkable.
The main form of wagering in Albania is betting on sports. While casinos number just a few dozen, there are more than 4,000 betting shops spread throughout the country. This is quite an impressive total for a country with a population of fewer than 3 million citizens.
Official estimates place the amount of money gambled by Albanians in the year 2017 at about $150 million. However, this number is derived from statistics collected from licensed gambling firms. Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama contends that the prevalence of underground gaming inflates the true number substantially to as much as $800 million.
It's Prime Minister Rama who's behind the recently passed legislation, and it's not the first time he has tried to fight gambling in the country. In 2013, after Rama's Socialist Party swept into power, he began large-scale efforts to curb gambling, authorizing inspections of more than a thousand betting facilities, many of which were shut down.
Rama believes that the Albanian gambling scene has strong ties to organized crime as well as being a social nuisance. “We are waging a frontal war with the evil entrenched deeply in our society over the years,” he said in an address to the Kuvendi, the parliament of the tiny Balkan country.
Online gambling sites were not spared criticism by the prime minister. He vowed to set up a task force specifically to go after them. “They might keep changing sites,” he acknowledged, “and we’ll keep shutting them down.” Assuming the prime minister makes good on his threats, Albania will join Colombia and Uruguay in seeking to block offshore poker sites and other internet gaming URLs.
According to Rama, several MPs received threatening text messages prior to the vote on the anti-gambling legislation. This bolsters, in his view, the idea that many of the gaming interests in Albania are backed by dangerous criminals.
On the face of it, Albania's abrupt ban on a wide array of gambling activities seems like a grotesque over-reaction to the problems which, frankly, are latent in almost any form of gambling. Yet it needs to be remembered that this is Albania – the country that suffered a violent overthrow of the government and a raging revolution on account of a nationwide pyramid scheme going, well, pyramidal (as they all do eventually). So, in that regard, Albania may just be a little late in closing the barn doors on a problem that any Albanian government is bound to view with a great deal more wariness than most other regimes in the world.
Yet this recent legal maneuver seems part of an increasing pattern among governments worldwide – namely, to redefine gambling as a sort of special upper-class perk reserved for those who can afford to play at the well-guarded governmental gambling reservations far removed from the downtown slums. Ordinary people who like to gamble are being priced out of the market, and the market is being moved to a luxurious place far away from the smelly proletarians who would otherwise spoil the ambiance of the affair. For an example of this kind of thinking, just look at the recent police actions against small cardrooms in Bangalore, India, while more upscale establishments were left alone.
Everyone, in short, is trying to become the next Monaco for the big-money players. And governments are doing so by cleaning out the riff-raff hanging about, just like host cities lock up the street people when big conventions come into town. Only if you are rich enough are you allowed to gamble in this new utopian vision of a responsible gaming industry.
Looked at dispassionately, the relatively diminutive Albanian economy is not well equipped to suffer any form of cash flow reductions. Throttling retail gambling and driving it cross-border or underground is going to have a deleterious effect on the government's finances. Most Albanians would probably prefer to keep these revenue-generating businesses within the country especially since, with a per capita gross domestic product of just $5,319, it's one of the poorest nations in Europe.
Shutting down many established operations that have staff is going to add unemployment to the mix as well. As many as 8,000 workers could find themselves without jobs as a consequence of the recent parliamentary decision.
This scheme is bound to backfire in a country as wager-mad as Albania. A lot of free capital is circulating in the Albanian economy as a result of the national fetish for games of chance. Or even for games of not-so-chance, since a certain degree of the pressure being applied by the government comes as a result of a long string of notorious match-fixing scandals which have enraged those European nations that Albania hopes to join as a new ascendant member of the EU. The EU has also urged Albania to step up its efforts in combating organized crime, corruption, and drug trafficking. It is this external pressure from the EU that truly seems to be driving this affair.
The gambling ban may be a window-dressing attempt to appease European sensibilities without doing more to tackle the root causes of the problems in Albanian society. The charges of corruption levied at Tirana, for instance, would be difficult to address without a total overhaul of the government: something those in power (who presumably benefit from bribes and illegal payoffs) are not necessarily keen on implementing. By fighting against gambling operators, PM Edi Rama may be able to claim that he's targeting organized gangs of criminals and rooting out corruption without actually making any effective movement on either issue.
Although it might seem a tad cynical, it would not be unrealistic to expect Albania to play the same game and for the same prize that Greece won in the past – admission to the EU. The big question is whether or not the Union learned anything from its finger-burning exercise on the Hellenic Peninsula. If it has, there are troubled times in store for Albania.
Assuming the Land of the Eagles gains entry into the big club, the national finances are going to be tottering as a result of this clean-up campaign. Can the country go back to business as usual once the prize has been won? Will the EU overlook this potential collapse? Those are the big questions.
Having Albania go all Puritan in outlook isn't going to stop the wheels of fortune from spinning. They are merely going to spin on the borders of tiny Albania rather than inside the country itself. What Albania bans will be eagerly welcomed by casino operators in neighboring areas. Soon, it will be quite easy to see where Albania begins. It will be where the bright neon lights along both sides of the road cease to shine.
Given the national penchant for gaming, it hardly seems like a gambling crackdown would be a vote-winning issue at the polls. So what appears to be taking place is reminiscent of what happened when Greece gussied up its balance sheet in order to gain admission to the EU and then went right back to being Greece again once the dirty deed was properly consummated beyond the ability of the EU to escape from it. Brussels has been dealing with the consequences ever since.
And what if Albania is not successful, or at least not immediately successful, in gaining accession to the EU? How long can it endure while its precious capital flows across the border to extra-territorial casinos, never to return? How long before enraged Albanians turn on what appears to be at face value an overly reformist-minded government? Can they hold out long enough for Albania to build a reputation as a go-to gambling resort for moneyed Europeans?
Laissez les bons temps rouler may be the rallying cry of the loyal opposition in the next electoral contest. And the opposition is already displeased with the current government. The bill to outlaw the majority of Albanian gambling passed by a unanimous 75 - 0 vote, not because it had broad-based public appeal but because the main opposition parties – the Democratic Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration – have boycotted the legislative session. These two parties hold a combined 61 seats in the Kuvendi.
Given the proclivity of Albanians for taking a flyer on almost any bet there is, one has to wonder what the betting line is on the current government surviving the perils of the next electoral cycle. Unfortunately for most Albanians, they may need to go across the border to place their bets.