Kazakhstan is currently navigating a complex path toward comprehensive legislative reform, impacting various sectors and practices within the country. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev recently signed a law prohibiting public servants from gambling, reflecting a broader reform movement aimed at combating gambling addiction and promoting public health. This blog post will explore the intricacies of these reforms, their implications, and the controversies they have sparked among political analysts, legal professionals, and students of law.

Kazakhstan’s new law, signed by President Tokayev, prohibits public servants, military personnel, and heads of state organizations from engaging in gambling activities. This law affects approximately 280,000 public servants and extends to debtors, covering a group of 3.5 million people. The aim is to curb gambling addiction and enhance public responsibility.

Under the new regulations, telecom operators are now banned from sending gambling-related advertisements. Violations result in fines of 200,000 Kazakhstani tenge ($416). Additionally, unlicensed foreign bookies, lotteries, and online casinos face stringent restrictions, with organizers of illegal online casinos potentially receiving up to two years in prison. The legal age for betting has also been raised to 21.

Kazakhstan’s gambling market has a long history dating back to the Soviet era. However, significant regulations only emerged in 2017. The recent law is part of a series of legislative reform efforts that began in 2020 as a public health initiative. These measures aim to address the detrimental effects of gambling on individuals and society.

A contentious aspect of the proposed reform is the creation of the Betting Account Center (BAC), operated by private companies. The BAC would oversee the betting market, control resource allocation, determine market players, and collect 1.5% of all profits. Given the profitability of the gambling market, this percentage represents a considerable sum, with the industry expected to generate $500 million by 2025.

In 2020, Kazakh Vice Minister of Culture Saken Musaybekov resigned after being caught accepting bribes from lobbyists. These lobbyists represented two opaque private companies, Exirius LLP and PayBox, which aimed to push the BAC law and manage all related functions. This incident highlights the potential for corruption within the legislative process.

Opponents of the BAC law have faced significant pressure to remain silent. The owners of the independent bookmaking company Olimp were arrested after holding a press conference opposing the BAC’s introduction. They claim retaliation for whistle-blowing, while the government accuses them of being part of organized crime syndicates.

Despite the controversies, the BAC, now renamed the Unified Accounting System (UAS), remains a part of the new draft law. These amendments have passed their first and second readings in Parliament and are awaiting the presidential signature. The UAS aims to bring greater transparency and regulation to the betting industry.

Kazakhstan’s government reports that over 350,000 people, including many minors, engage in gambling, representing nearly 2% of the population. The government aims to halve this number in the coming years. According to the Interior Ministry, each gambler carries an average debt of 10 million Kazakhstani tenge ($20,083).

President Tokayev has expressed deep concern over the human cost of compulsive gambling. “Compulsive gambling brings untold misery, destroying thousands of families, pushing many into crime. Day after day there is news of people getting into debt because of gambling and taking their own lives. This addiction causes great harm to the young generation; online gambling is turning into an everyday leisure activity for children,” he stated.

In addition to legislative reform, Kazakhstan has also taken enforcement measures against illegal gambling activities. In February 2024, authorities dismantled the largest network of illegal online casinos, seizing over $1 million, 20 weapons, and detaining 400 people. The government is also implementing medical treatment for problem gamblers, with a budget exceeding 80 million Kazakhstani tenge ($166,641).

Law reform is a critical tool in the government’s strategy to combat problem gambling. By imposing strict regulations and penalties, the government aims to reduce the prevalence of gambling addiction and its associated social harms. These reforms are designed to create a safer and more responsible gambling environment.

Political analysts and legal professionals play a crucial role in scrutinizing these reforms. Their expertise and insights help shape the legislative process and ensure that reforms are implemented effectively and ethically. Their participation is essential in holding the government accountable and advocating for fair and transparent laws.

For students of law, Kazakhstan’s legislative reform provides a valuable case study. It offers insights into the complexities of law-making, the challenges of combating social issues through legislation, and the importance of ethical governance. Observing these reforms can enhance their understanding of public policy and legal frameworks.

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