Employees of a betting firm blocked a major street in Yerevan on Wednesday to protest against severe restrictions on betting and gambling planned by the pro-government majority in Armenia’s parliament.
A bill drafted late last year by the parliament’s deputy speaker Alen Simonian would close the vast majority of hundreds of betting shops that have sprung up across the country in the last few years. They would be allowed to operate only in four Armenian towns: Jermuk, Meghri, Sevan and Tsaghkadzor.
Simonian and his supporters argue that a rising number of Armenians are spending a disproportionate share of their incomes on betting as well as gambling. According to them, tens of thousands of people have already incurred major debts as a result.
Armenian betting firms have strongly objected to the proposed measures, clinching a concession from the Armenian parliament committee on economic issues. Under an amended version of the bill drafted approved by the committee last week, the ban on betting shops would come into force on November 2020.
There would be no such delay for a ban on video slot machines also envisaged by the bill. Such machines can be found at most petrol and pressurized gas stations in the country. Virtually all of them belong to the GoodWin betting agency that organized the protest near the parliament building in Yerevan.
GoodWin’s director, Sargis Mikaelian, and employees said the removal of the gambling machines should also be delayed until the end of next year. Mikaelian argued that unlike other private firms GoodWin does not organize online gambling not covered by the bill.
The protesters unblocked a section of Marshal Bagramian Avenue adjacent to the National Assembly building only after the chairman of the parliament committee, Babken Tunian, agreed to meet with their representatives.
“They promised to hold further discussions and take into consideration our comments and concerns,” Mikaelian said afterwards.
Meanwhile, Simonian dismissed arguments that the bill would cost the GoodWin workers their jobs. “The machines are not operated by human beings,” he said. “So they are exploiting the issue. I’m sure that it won’t work.”
Similar restrictions were already imposed on Armenian casinos in 2014. A law which took effect at the time stipulates that casinos can freely operate only in Armenia’s three most popular resort towns, including Jermuk and Tsaghkadzor. Casino owners can do business in Yerevan and other parts of the country only if they invest at least $100 million in their gambling sites.