MOSCOW—The casinos here in the 1990s saw their share of bloody brawls, dirty scams, and murders. Most of the best known were controlled by organized-crime groups that fought each other for money and power.
Just one example: In the early 1990s, a leader of the Solntsevo criminal group, Valery Vlasov, ran Valery, one of Moscow’s most popular casinos, where shadowy businessmen and Russian Mafiosi laundered money through the gambling business while they spent their leisure time looking for prostitutes and making connections. It was a favorite venue for the post-Soviet “golden youth” to meet with pop stars or mid-level politicians. Then, in 1993, Vlasov was shot down right at the entrance to Valery.
Russian millionaire Igor Ballo, the president of the Russian Gambling Business Association, could share volumes of memories from “the wild 1990s.” He founded the first ruble casino in Russia, owned several casinos in Moscow, Iraq, and Egypt, and donated a lot of his money to charities.
But Ballo is especially fond of one memory: that day in early November 1996 when he says he predicted the future for Donald Trump.
That day the door to Ballo’s luxurious Beverly Hills casino flew open: “A huge man with orange hair, an American businessman and a casino owner, Trump, walked in to talk business,” Ballo told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “He was taller than me. I looked at him with interest. In fact, he impressed me so much from our first meeting that I later told him that he was the future American president, but Trump just waved his hand. He was not interested in politics back then,” Ballo recalled. Moreover, “He sounded frustrated, even angry with our rules.”
The two sat down for a frank conversation; they had common interests in making money. In his five visits to Russia, the now U.S. president-elect had various businesses and entertainment agendas in Moscow, where he offered authorities investments of more than $300 million.
“Trump was furious that by our law he could not privatize Moscow’s land,” Ballo told me: “‘This is wrong! Say I build towers and then they ask me to get out of Moscow!’ he complained to me.”
Yury Luzhkov, who was Moscow mayor in 1992-2010, confirmed to The Daily Beast that Trump did have meetings with Moscow’s city hall and discussed major investment and development plans.
“I regret that Trump did not build the Park of Wonders for children in Moscow, but that was not his fault. It was our laws and our competition that did not allow him to construct the cultural center, which Moscow still does not have, by the way,” said Luzhkov, who spoke with The Daily Beast on the phone from London.
Nobody in today’s Russia seems surprised that Trump looked for powerful Moscow friends around the gambling business. “Moscow casinos had a reputation as brothels, but Trump did not seem disgusted,” Moscow millionaire Aleksei Kozlov told The Daily Beast. “He is a pop star himself, a player, who has capitalized on his name.”
Today, when Kremlinologists are competing to predict Russia’s future relationship with Trump, maybe some of them should listen to the leader of Russia’s gambling business: Ballo’s sense was that Russia should welcome Trump but still be aware of his core priorities.
As with many others in Russia today, Ballo sees Trump as somebody who could restore warmer relations with the United States, and he celebrated Trump’s election victory as Russia’s victory.
The businessman posted photographs of himself with Trump on Facebook with proud notes about his old predictions coming true. But as a professional gambler, Ballo warned: “No player should relax.”
“When I looked at him, I realized what a typical American he was,” Ballo said, “that he would always put his own and America’s interests as a priority, playing the game with his mind, while most people in Russia let everything out through our hearts and emotions.”
Last week, the Kremlin had its first Trumpian disappointments. The president-elect discussed the sensitive issues of Crimea and Donbas with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
“Trump should not even talk with that junta leader. He should have ignored Kiev’s criminal leadership,” a member of the Public Chamber, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast.
By the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump had made their first strongly contradictory statements. While Putin paid tribute to Fidel Castro, saying Russia had lost “a reliable and sincere friend,” Trump insisted that Castro was “a brutal dictator” who violated the freedoms and human rights of the Cuban people.
Would Trump treat the Kremlin with respect, as an equal? Would Trump make the U.S. State Department forget about its criticism of Russian authorities for violating the Russian constitution and human rights? Those were the unanswered questions Russian politicians discussed today.
“Trump has already made his first international priority clear by holding his first meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and not with Vladimir Putin,” Grigory Golosov, a professor at European University in St. Petersburg, told The Daily Beast. “The president-elect’s first priority will be trade issues with Asia and making Japan pay more for its own defense.”
Markov, an adviser to the Russian presidential administration, told The Daily Beast that Trump’s relations with Moscow are still up in the air.
“President [Putin]’s adviser for international affairs Yury Ushakov, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu will be the key figures establishing relations with Trump’s administration,” Markov said. “I just spoke with Kremlin officials—nothing is clear; there still have been no orders, no instructions for us, the experts in Russia-U.S. relations; but we are full of joy at the thaw with the U.S. and of hopes that Trump will not allow a nuclear war with Russia,” Markov added.
Yes, one hopes! But one cannot be sure. It all feels like an enormous gamble.