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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakh Town Set to Become 'Las Vegas on the Steppe'

KAPCHAGAI, Kazakhstan -- The town's chief administrator sat next to an office window overlooking rows of dilapidated four-story, Soviet-era apartment buildings in this grim industrial town. As he looked down at the rooftops, he considered the potential impact of dozens -- perhaps even hundreds -- of casinos and thousands of arcades setting up shop in this region.

"I haven't been to Las Vegas so I can't compare," said the administrator, Kuagdel Turuadeleav, "But there are casinos in Almaty and in Astana and they look fine. There will be some conspicuous changes, but I don't see any problems coming."

Local officials say that if all goes according to plan, Kapchagai will soon be transformed into a "Las Vegas on the Steppe," as boosters here are calling it. Under a new law promulgated by Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to take effect in April, gambling will be restricted to two provincial cities -- Kapchagai, not far from Almaty, and Shchuchinsk, north of Astana, the capital.

Rich in oil, Kazakhstan, like Russia and some other former Soviet republics, has experienced a gambling boom. The country has 132 casinos and more than 2,000 smaller gambling parlors, slot halls, and bookmakers, according to Nazarbayev's office.

The designation of two casino centers has excited investors. Gambling industry officials say two Chinese companies plan to build an enormous casino complex in Kapchagai.

Casino managers say they cannot possibly relocate their casinos by April, and earlier this month, they gathered in front of government offices to register a protest against the April deadline.

But the high visibility of Kazakhstan's many casinos -- typically decorated like pinball machines, with blinking lights, even when located in quiet residential neighborhoods -- has produced a backlash in this country of 17 million people. Nazarbayev has said creating two dedicated gambling centers will help isolate the social cost of gambling from the general population, and also create tourism destinations for foreign gamblers, especially the Chinese.

Kapchagai is located only about 640 kilometers from the border with China.

But many of the 51,000 residents of Kapchagai do not share their local government officials' enthusiasm for Nazarbayev's plan.

"People are afraid of chaos," said Sasha Imguleako, 19, who works at one of the low-stakes gaming arcades already in business in Kapchagai. "Criminals will come, and we are all afraid of trouble."

A fear of increasing crime is not the only source of concern. People wonder whether a gambling culture will corrupt the town's young people, destroying the city's traditional work ethic. "We worry about it, but worry is all we can do," said Svetlana Bakiyev, who owns a small grocery store near the center of town and is the mother of two daughters, ages 14 and 18. "We have no place else to go."

For many in Kapchagai, the far-reaching impact of many thousands of gamblers streaming into the city is simply hard to fathom. "We will need street lights working past midnight," said Bakiyev's husband, Max Bakiyev. "Right now, they stop working at 12 a.m. This is something that will need to change."

Some of the buzz in Kapchagai's smattering of restaurants and storefronts focuses on the price of real estate -- apartments costing $2,000 a few years ago now fetch up to $10,000. Most of the increase has come in a speculative frenzy over the coming gambling industry.

But one of the chief selling points of a gambling center on the Central Asian steppe is also among the chief sources of anxiety among residents: Chinese gamblers. The Chinese appetite for gambling may stoke investment fervor, but for many Kazakhs the idea of encouraging crowds of Chinese visitors to cross the border raises the specter of an invasion.