Ups and downs: an overview of Eastern European gambling markets in 2024
Eastern Europe holds the potential for both success and frustration. While some countries have liberal regulations and newly re-regulated markets, others exploit the gambling industry with skyrocketing taxes, constrain it with tight restrictions, or ban gambling and betting outright. Keep reading for a rundown of which markets to keep an eye on in 2023.
Eastern Europe is — and always has been — a region of great risks. Regulations change, laws are passed and repealed, and as one country lifts restrictions, another introduces them. But plenty of operators have found success in the region, and it will continue to offer savvy gambling providers opportunities to grow and prosper.
To help you keep up with the times, we’ll talk about the history of the industry in the region and the current situation in several Eastern European (and one Central Asian) countries.
The history of gambling in the Russian Federation is full of twists. At the beginning of the 2000s, gambling was completely unrestricted. Slot machines could be found not only in gambling halls and casinos but even in public spaces and convenience stores. The industry’s unfettered operation at the time gave it a poor reputation in the eyes of the public.
Early attempts at regulation were not successful. For example, in the 90s in St. Petersburg, there was an initiative to make all gambling enterprises partially state-owned so that proceeds from the industry could be used for public needs. However, when the system was put in place, operators reported no earnings, and the project failed. One of the authors of this unsuccessful initiative was Vladimir Putin, who in 1999 became Acting President of the Russian Federation.
Expectedly, the head of state with a record of criticizing gambling cracked down on the industry, and by 2009 most games of chance were outlawed. Land-based casinos were permitted only in specially designated gambling zones: Azov-city in Krasnodar Krai, Altai, Kaliningrad, and the Far East.
The gambling industry, which was booming at the beginning of the 2000s, dwindled as the blanket ban came into force. While demand was huge, gamblers were not interested in traveling to out-of-the-way regions. The zones were remote and had little to no tourism infrastructure, so for a vast majority of players, it was simpler to travel to a neighboring country or content themselves with the less-glamorous offerings of black market casinos.
Ultimately, most of the designated zones underperformed. Azov-city, the first gambling zone to open, was liquidated in 2018, costing investors 3.3 billion rubles. Neither Altai nor Kaliningrad has ever shown spectacular results.
The Primorsky zone, located in the Far East and owned by a Taiwanese company, prospered by attracting tourists from South Korea and China instead of focusing on local gamblers.
A new zone (to replace Azov-city) was opened near Sochi to take advantage of the infrastructure which was created for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. However, the zones proved to be frustrating for investors and less lucrative than the government anticipated.
Needless to say, the worldwide shift from land-based to online gambling — which has been accelerating in the last couple of years — wasn’t felt in the country, as online casinos are completely illegal.
Nevertheless, there is a workaround for those who want to play online. By using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), users can redirect their web traffic from their device to a server located outside of Russia. VPNs allow people to securely and privately enjoy online casinos without the risk of being monitored.
Previously, sports betting was largely untouched. Bookmakers and operators of parimutuel betting can be licensed and work legally in the country, even outside of the gambling zones.
However, when the 2020 crisis hit the Russian sports industry, new regulations aimed to support it by utilizing the betting industry.
Bill № 1055657-7, “On Unified Gambling Regulator,” was introduced in November, swiftly passed into law in December, and signed by the president on December 30th.
The new legislation aimed to introduce a single regulator for the gambling industry, unified systems for payment, and online monitoring, as well as a new way to calculate compulsory contributions that betting companies pay to sports organizations.
Of course, the law received its fair share of criticism for being full of terms and measures that were not particularly well-defined. At the same time, it marks a novel direction for Russian legislation because, to an extent, it’s inspired by Western regulations and aims to centralize and streamline the industry.
This trend is also supported by Decree No 706, which came into force in January 2021. This measure removes numerous outdated restrictions and requirements, making the Russian landscape a little easier for operators to navigate.
New regulations governing the gambling business will come into effect on September 1, 2024. These changes aim to tighten control of the industry, particularly the online segment, addressing aspects such as online gambling platforms, mobile betting applications, and other digital gambling services. By implementing stricter oversight and control measures, the government aims to prevent illegal gambling operations and promote responsible gambling practices.
For a while, the gambling market of Belarus prospered by catering to players from neighboring countries where gambling was illegal. However, in recent years, growth has subsided.
Even before the crisis, the industry was already in decline. The number of casinos, bookmakers, and slot-machine halls had been decreasing, year by year. Meanwhile, the government was reporting increased earnings from the gambling industry, thanks to ever-rising taxes.
2020 was a rocky year for the country. After the crisis started, the land-based sector suffered even more, even though the Belarusian government didn’t impose strict lockdowns. Protests that erupted in August were also extremely detrimental to the industry; the economy suffered, mobile internet connections were disrupted, and the public was too preoccupied to focus on entertainment.
In the past, gambling was regulated by presidential decrees. In 2023, however, gambling regulations were codified into law, creating a general licensing framework. The potential implications of these changes remain uncertain, as licensing conditions are stringent in both the old and new systems.
If the government’s attitude changes and the situation in the country stabilizes, the market might start growing again, but at this moment it’s too early to anticipate any changes.
In 2009, all forms of gambling in Ukraine were banned, but the market recently opened back up. After 11 years, gambling was legalized again in the summer of 2020, kindling considerable interest among local and foreign investors.
The new legislation allows for online and land-based casinos, betting shops, gaming halls, and poker rooms. Licensing requirements and fees are different for each type of business; in the case of land-based gambling establishments, they depend on geographical location. Our team here at Slotegrator covered the details in our video.
In 2022, during the early stages of the war, authorities changed the law to allow certain business sectors, including gambling, to enjoy a reduced 2% tax rate on their profits. As a result, almost all gambling operators quickly adopted this simpler tax system. However, in 2023, authorities proposed axing the perk, as tax contributions to the budget fell short of expectations.
The new regulations are finding themselves under critical fire. The variety of fees and taxes that operators are responsible for, as well as some of the highest licensing costs in Europe, could make operation in Ukraine financially untenable, jeopardizing the benefits of legalization. In iGaming, there’s always a risk that stringent regulations and licensing conditions can drive operators into the unregulated market, taking players (and tax revenues) with them.
However, overall, as one of the many promising regions for the gambling business in 2023, it is definitely a good idea for prospective operators and investors to closely monitor the situation in the country.
Despite the challenging circumstances the country is facing, the gambling industry in Ukraine still shows potential for growth and success. We will continue monitoring the situation in Ukraine closely and provide updates accordingly.
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are success stories when it comes to economic growth and development. Each of these countries has a fully legal and regulated gambling industry.
The Baltic countries are in a unique position — geographically, they are close to Russia and draw quite a lot of gamblers who find it easier, cheaper, and more enjoyable to travel there than to go to one of Russia’s remote gambling zones. And like many other EU member states, they have a solid legislative base and stable relationship between the government and the gambling industry.
In many neighboring countries throughout both the EU and the CIS, gambling advertising is severely restricted, and the Baltic states take a similar approach. Lithuania and Estonia allow some forms of advertising, while Latvia prohibits them entirely.
The recent crisis, of course, left its mark.
In Estonia, the national budget suffered due to the lack of expected tax revenues from the gambling industry, which caused the cancellation of several social and healthcare projects that depend on tax revenues for funding.
In Latvia, not only did the land-based sector suffer, but a ban on online gambling was implemented in the wake of the Latvian Coronavirus bill. The measure was later deemed unconstitutional, but the damage was done — the industry suffered an overall revenue decline of 45.5% compared to the previous year.
Lithuania fared better — in the first quarter of 2020, the decrease was just 2.8% because the drop in revenue from the land-based market was offset by increasing results from the online gambling sector.
Before the crisis, all three countries enjoyed growth, so it’s safe to say that the decline is temporary.
A license is still required to operate anywhere in the Baltics. Estonia forbids operators to enter the market without a local license, while Lithuania and Latvia recognize licenses issued by other jurisdictions. Authorities relentlessly block offshore websites that try to slip through the cracks, sending a clear message — illegal operators will not be tolerated.
The gambling industry in Georgia has long been legal and enjoyed relatively few restrictions. Operators must have a local license, but the regulations are not as strict as those in many other countries in the region.
Georgia’s gambling sector spread its wings in the early 2000s, thanks to a set of liberalizing economic reforms. Loosened regulations, low taxes, and a streamlined license acquisition processes created favorable conditions for the industry's expansion. Taking advantage of the demand from nearby Turkey, where gambling is prohibited, the town of Batumi on the Black Sea has become a hub for casinos.
However, the real gambling boom came during the COVID-19 period, when people shifted to online games. Despite the pandemic-related shutdowns of land-based slot machines, the gambling sector managed to achieve a remarkable 23% growth compared to the previous year, thanks to the diverse array of activities offered by online casinos and sports betting. It should be noted, however, that these two halves of the industry are driven by the same operators — only holders of land-based licenses can offer online games and bets.
Although tourism is considered the main source of gambling revenues in Georgia, locals gamble nearly as much as tourists — if not more. Gambling addiction is seen as a real social plague in Georgia, and extensive studies have documented the concerning issue of gambling addiction among minors. These issues have made their impact on Georgian legislation
In 2022, the Georgian parliament passed a bill that imposed significant restrictions on the gambling industry. These restrictions included raising the gambling age limit, prohibiting advertisements, and imposing higher taxes on the sector. While the new restrictions present a challenge for operators, Georgia’s licensing regulations and requirements are still relatively more lenient than neighboring countries.
Kazakhstan’s sizable Russian-speaking population ties the former Soviet country to its northern neighbor — the Russian Federation.
The gambling laws in these two countries are also very similar: casinos and slot machines are legal in a limited capacity, confined to the special gambling zones of Kapchagay and Shchuchinsk. The online market isn’t altogether outlawed, but it’s not part of the licensing framework. Effectively, this means that there is no legal way to launch an online casino in Kazakhstan, but it’s not against the law to play on a foreign site. The government does not actively enforce the prohibition.
Previously, neither sports betting nor parimutuel betting were restricted to the designated gambling zones (another similarity with the Russian legislation), but starting from January 4, 2021, this has changed. Recent amendments to Law No. 356-VI entered into force, moving the bookmakers to the designated zones, and introducing the unified registration center for bets that all of the wagers must go through.
While heavily restricted, the fact that gambling is legal at all sets Kazakhstan apart from neighboring Central Asian countries like Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, all of which prohibit gambling completely. This positions Kazakhstan as a gambling oasis in the midst of other Muslim countries where there is demand, but no supply.
Armenia is politically and economically intertwined with both Russia and the EU (Armenia, together with Georgia, is considered European as per EU neighborhood policy and has been a member of the EU Eastern Partnership since 2009). This country, located in the South Caucasus, has a regulated gambling market, and the government has been moving in the direction of increased regulation in the last couple of years.
The first step was an advertising restriction banning TV and internet advertising — with a few exceptions — and other measures soon followed.
Several amendments to the tax code were introduced in 2019 to compensate for the overall loss of government revenue with increased tax rates for alcohol, tobacco, and gambling enterprises.
The government also made clear its intention to limit or restrict bookmakers, which caused a wave of protests in the industry. Similar to Russia and Kazakhstan, special gambling zones were to be created in the towns of Tsaghkadzor, Sevan, Jermuk, and Meghri. The effort seems to be driven by an idea to shift the gambling industry towards mainly catering to tourists and foreigners while decreasing the Armenian public’s access to casinos and sports betting shops.
Eventually, the Armenian government's attitudes and requirements for regulating the gambling sector were reflected in legislation. In 2022, new legislation was introduced to impose restrictions on all forms of gambling advertising. This led to a ban on such promotions across various platforms, including the internet, television, radio, and public spaces. Furthermore, starting from July 1, 2023, a new law came into effect, raising the costs of fees and licenses for betting companies and online casinos.
Industry operators and experts agree on one thing: it’s extremely important to have one’s ear to the ground. The Eastern European market is highly dynamic and subject to sometimes unpredictable changes.
Each country has its legal system and numerous political and economic factors in play that can influence the gambling market in one way or the other. Laws are written or repealed and economies boom and bust, but every year, opportunities open up, and those who follow the changes (or even anticipate them) can expect growth — and a payday.
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