Abkhazia wants independence. Could an ancient game help?by Oliver Bullough / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
“A sort of Abkhazian Riverdance”: the opening ceremony of the domino world championships in Sukhum, 16th October
Every one of the 277 players who visited Abkhazia for the three-day domino world championships in October was a criminal. By crossing the border from Russia, they were immediately liable to at least two years in a Georgian prison.
Abkhazia’s quarter of a million people live on a narrow strip of land between the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea. The territory is called an independent country by Moscow, but part of Georgia by every other country in the world, bar five. During the Cold War, it was part of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and today the Georgians, who lost a vicious war for control in the early 1990s, maintain that visiting without their permission is illegal.
At first, Russia also shunned the breakaway republic—but when Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, he saw the benefits of fostering a friendly buffer state on the border with pro-western Georgia; he has also been forthright about his vision of rebuilding Russia’s sway over the region. Now prime minister, and with his return to the presidency in May all but assured, that stance is unlikely to change. Abkhazia’s bitterly contested status will remain a bellwether not only in the regional power struggle between Russia and the west, but also for separatist movements across the world—from Spain to China to Azerbaijan.
Yet all of this did nothing to deter the players from 25 countries who poured into the old Intourist hotel for registration on 17th and 18th October. They acted as if they were attending a perfectly normal convention, rather than coming to play dominoes in the middle of a frozen conflict. Much of the conversation was enthusiastic and in Spanish (dominoes is very popular in Latin America) with delegates from Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Nicaragua, as well as Spain. Translators weaved among the crowds, a riot of brightly-coloured tracksuits, facilitating conversations with locals and other Russian-speakers from Russia, South Ossetia and Uzbekistan. When the Abkhaz policemen in attendance were not busy, they gawped at the visitors. Tourists, as a rule, do not holiday in legal limbo—and few Abkhaz had seen this number of foreigners in one place before.