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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Finding the Best Bet for the Kremlin

If you're looking to strike it rich on the presidential election in March, Lyudmila Putina is a name to keep in mind. A $10 dollar wager with Britain's Unibet that President Vladimir Putin's wife will replace him in the Kremlin could bring a $2,000 payout should she get the job.

But while betting on the winners of elections might be fairly popular in the West, there is much less wagering activity when it comes to Russian votes.

A law forbidding betting on elections, politically apathetic gamblers and the fact that just one bookmaker is taking bets all bode poorly for the future of political gambling.

"Betting on elections is forbidden," a man who did not give his name said by telephone from Moskovsky Totalizator. "No one here will talk about it."

The company raked in the bets eight years ago when Putin first ran for the presidency, and it wasn't alone. A large number of other bookmakers did good business offering odds on that election and on the preceding contest, when an incumbent Boris Yeltsin locked horns with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in 1996.

This all changed in 2003, when the Central Elections Commission pushed a law through the State Duma banning any type of election betting during the official campaign period. Officials said gambling on elections, like extremist language in campaigning and bribing voters, threatened the process' legitimacy.

Four months before Duma elections and a bit over half a year to the presidential vote, just one bookmaker in the country, Shans, is taking bets related to politics.

Pollsters of a sort, bookmakers often offer tantalizing insight for political junkies looking to predict the outcomes of elections, based on the idea that thousands of people putting money down on candidates have a vested interest in predicting the winner.

But Shans has been careful in offering bets not on election results, but on changes in the popularity ratings of individual politicians and parties.

"And we will stop taking bets when the election campaigns officially begin," said Oleg Zhuravsky, head of Shans and executive director of the National Association of Bookmakers.

Campaigns usually start three months before voting day.

One option Shans offers lets you put your money -- there is a 30 ruble ($1.15) minimum bet and a 3,000 ruble maximum -- on whether the popularity rating of a political party will rise or fall from the previous week. The deadline for bets is Tuesday, after which gamblers wait until the Levada Center releases its weekly poll results on Wednesday.

Zhuravsky said Shans began collecting the bets in May and that the number of gamblers putting their money down had grown from 200 in the first week to 2,000 on Friday. He said the average bet was 500 rubles.

Wagers on individual politicians work differently. Gamblers are offered pairs of names, like first deputy prime ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, and then bet on whether there will be a change in which one is more popular.

"If the politicians are running neck and neck, the payoff is not big," Zhuravsky said. "But if an obvious outsider suddenly moves ahead, the payoff can be dozens of times higher."

Asked why Shans is not accepting straight bets before the campaigns kick off, Zhuravsky said gamblers would not be willing to wait three months to find out whether they won.

Besides the legal hurdles, it appears a lack of interest in politics among gamblers also stifles political betting.

Zhuravsky said, without providing revenue figures, that political bets accounted for only about 1 percent of the totals being placed, with the rest of the wagers coming on sports. Of those, 80 percent are on football.

Larisa Nikolskaya, deputy financial director of Offside bookmaker, said her company decided not to take political bets. "Our cashiers taking bets across Moscow say it is extremely rare that someone wants to place a bet on a party or a politician," Nikolskaya said.

Meanwhile, some major foreign bookmakers, such as Britain's Unibet and Ireland's Intrade Prediction Markets, are taking bets on who will be the next president.

Unibet had Ivanov in front as of Friday, offering a $2.20 payback on a $1 wager should he win. Unibet is giving Medvedev less of a chance, so the potential return is bigger in the event he wins -- $3.75 on a $1 bet.

Unibet's list of 24 candidates includes Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov (at 10-to-1 odds), his predecessor and opposition politician Mikhail Kasyanov (14-to-1) and Zyuganov (30-to-1).

The biggest payoff, $200 on every dollar wagered, can be had from a bet on Lyudmila Putina, jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky or Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich, should any of them land the president's post.

Ireland's Intrade offers contracts that will pay off 100 monetary units -- the choice of currency is up to the gambler -- if a certain figure becomes president.

Oddly enough, Putin, who is barred constitutionally from running for a third consecutive term, has topped the action, with 128 contracts sold for 11.5 units, meaning, for example, that an $11.50 bet returns $100.

A contract for Ivanov can be had for 41 units, while Medvedev's costs 17. Despite the fact that the two are widely considered the front-runners to replace Putin, neither has had any takers.

Three betters have purchased contracts for opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, at a cost of seven units, while Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has had two people offer up the 5.5 unit price for a contract should he be the country's next leader.