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Armenia: Economic Hardship Fuels Gambling Fever

As Armenia's economy continues to slump, one industry is picking up. Correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from Yerevan that pensioners with have little money feel they have little to lose by risking it at the gaming tables.

Yerevan, 23 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Every morning, scores of mostly elderly men and women form a long line at a street intersection in the center of Armenia's capital Yerevan. They're not waiting for pension benefits or relief aid in the freezing winter weather. Rather, they are seeking to try their luck at gambling -- a hitherto unthinkable activity for aging Armenians.

The hall this group is seeking to enter is one of many gambling sites in Armenia today that offers everyone a free ticket to take part in its lottery game, bingo. It's a chance that those mired in poverty do not fail to take.

The bingo hall packed with desperately poor people reflects a growing nationwide fever for money games. Lotteries, slot machines and gambling casinos are now part of the day-to-day life of a large number of Armenians -- so large a number that sociologists are speaking of a major change in the national culture. Armenia's enduring social hardships make gambling one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy -- with the growth particularly strong over the past year.

Verzhine Marutian, 72 years old, has a drawn face and poor clothes, hardly the stereotype of a gambler in an affluent country. Last week, she was transformed into a picture of elation when she became one of two lucky bingo players -- out of over 200 participants -- to win $4 (2,000 drams). The sum is equal to her monthly pension. "Life forces us to come here," said another player, a man in his 70s who was not so lucky over the weekend.

Another game of chance similar to bingo is "lotto," which has come to be the most popular gambling game in the country. Those who have numbers on their cards called out in the drawing can expect to win anything from a free lottery ticket to an apartment. There are now more than a dozen weekly lotto games, all of them run by private companies and broadcast live across the country. The games have regular slots on state-owned television ANT (Armenian National Television), the most popular channel in the country. Every weekday evening, ANT airs a drawing of one of the lottos.

In the increasingly tough competition for players, two local firms -- Family Lotto and Kind Lotto -- have emerged as the market leaders. Each firm says it sells up to 300,000 tickets a week -- and this in a country of only 3 million. One ticket costs between 60 cents and a dollar. Only a quarter of the tickets pay off anything at all.

The biggest weekly prize is usually about $10,000. More than a hundred other lucky ticket-holders win TV sets, refrigerators, and washing machines each week, while thousands of others have to content themselves with smaller awards.

According to Aharon Adibekian, an Armenian sociologist, "the gambling boom is the result of the hopeless situation people are now in. Gambling," he says, "gives them hope for a better life, something which they haven't had from government officials and politicians in the last 10 years."

Adibekian says that the popularity of the games also testifies to a new alteration in the national character. Traditionally, as a result of their difficult history of strife and conflict, Armenians had learned to tuck away extra money in the anticipation of more difficult times. Reliance on hard work rather than luck was the norm.

But, Adibekian argues, with the transition to a free market still not affording any economic benefits to most people, gambling may eventually be come to be perceived as the most realistic way of reducing life's miseries. He says: "If things remain as they are, the younger generation may adopt gambling as normal behavior."

Lottery businesses themselves admit that poverty is a major driving force in their success. But they say their industry helps the economy. As one Kind Lotto executive put it, "a whole army of people" is kept busy selling lottery tickets. Sales are stimulated by aggressive advertising and bring large revenues to TV channels. In addition, of course, the lottery firms are major taxpayers.

Wealthier Armenians choose to gamble in casinos and smaller so-called "game houses" that have slot machines only. According to official figures, there are about 80 game houses in Armenia, most of them in the capital. They, too, have proliferated rapidly in the last few years, often at the expense of other businesses. One of Yerevan's luxury jewelry shops shrank by half last year to allow its owners room to install slot machines.