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The domino effect, by Oliver Bullough

Domino Championship in Abkhazia

Prospect Magazine  —  Issue 189  

Abkhazia wants independence. Could an ancient game help?

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.

“I’m not worried about Georgia, I live in the United States,” said Manuel Oquendo, the bullish, bearded president of the USA Domino Federation, which brought a team of 18 to the championship. “We are not criminals, we are athletes. The people of Abkhazia are human beings like we are. Abkhazia is an independent country; these people who say otherwise are selfish.”

That is not a sentiment you would hear from his government, which considers Abkhazia to be Russian-occupied Georgian territory. The brief 2008 Russian-Georgian war was sparked by a quarrel over the status of South Ossetia, another breakaway region to the east of Abkhazia. Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili counted on western support, but did not get it (as David Goodhart reported in March’s Prospect). Instead, Russia poured troops across the mountains. Its troops crushed Georgia’s tiny army within a week, and then it recognised both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states—in effect freezing Georgia’s bid to become part of Nato by leaving an unresolved conflict on its borders. The United States protested loudly; and now regularly demands that Russia withdraw the soldiers it has positioned on Abkhazia’s border, and cease construction of army bases there.

***

At the dance spectacular of the tournament’s opening ceremony—a sort of Abkhazian Riverdance (see left), interspersed with speeches by domino powerbrokers—the Americans were, pointedly, seated directly behind President Alexander Ankvab, so as to appear in television cutaway shots. Few presidents would attend the opening ceremony of a domino championship; fewer still would pose for photos afterwards with female members of the Venezuelan team. Yet Ankvab did with every sign of enjoyment—evidence of the high hopes placed on the championships as a step out of international isolation. “We think it’s important for Abkhazia,” he told me. “For us, this is an advert: the fact that a large number of teams has come here is a victory in the information war.”

Russia has tried to help the little republic win diplomatic recognition further afield. It has had some success with South American republics that enjoy annoying America—Nicaragua and Venezuela. The impoverished Pacific island states Vanuatu, Nauru and Tuvalu also signed up, in at least one case for $50m of Russian aid. But such gains have been limited due to opposition from the pro-Georgian west, from those nervous of Putin’s ambitions and greater influence, and also from countries across the world nervous of losing their own would-be breakaway regions. This is why the domino championship assumed so much significance. If the tournament went ahead, it would be a triumph for Abkhazia.

In part, America supports Georgia’s claim because it sees a young democracy that needs help. But Georgia is also a major energy export route for Caspian oil and gas. It is one of the few reliably pro-western countries in the old Soviet Union, and has provided thousands of troops to the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the 2008 war, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have visited Georgia to voice support. Clinton was particularly outspoken: “I don’t know if there are internet social network ways of talking with and giving support to people inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” she told Georgians in Tbilisi last year. “But I would hope that there were, and that would be as much contact as possible… as much reaching out.”

The image she conjures up, of Abkhazia as some kind of gloomy dictatorship, with democratic Georgia “giving support,” is comic to anyone who has been to Abkhazia, especially if they have sat in the sun on the seafront where the old men drink coffee and freely discuss politics. Abkhazia’s political system does leave a lot to be desired, and Georgians argue that, since most ethnic Georgians fled during the early 1990s war and have not been allowed to return, it is a racist state. It is true that its 60,000 or so remaining Georgians are not prosperous and remain politically cowed, but the 40,000 Armenians and 40,000 Russians enjoy the same rights as the 90,000 ethnic Abkhaz. (Although, admittedly, ethnic Abkhaz dominate all top positions.)

I have never met an Abkhaz who does not support independence. Farmers in the highest villages, as much as shopkeepers in the capital, ask me why Britain has not recognised Abkhazia, and insist they would fight again to keep the Georgians out. There is a real question, though, about how “independent” the territory is, or can ever be, while it remains a Russian protectorate. Moscow now funds half of its budget, pays pensions to its old people, and is its only significant trade partner. Russian firms have taken over strategic assets, including its railway, while Russian tourists are the main visitors to its hotels. Abkhazians worry about their increasing reliance on their giant neighbour, and some are nostalgic for the years when even Russia treated them as a pariah. “We used to be free, now we’re independent,” was how my friend Dima Palba put it with typical black humour.

He and his countrymen are under no illusions about the game Russia is playing—and if they could attract a different protector, many would. “Here’s an idea, we’ll declare war on Britain, then when your troops get here, we’ll surrender, then we’ll be part of the British Empire,” said Dima, a little later in the evening. “That would be great.”

But if Clinton’s internet discussion between Abkhazians and Georgians were ever to be held, it might go something like this. The Georgian would start off by saying Abkhazia was part of Georgia, and always had been. The Abkhaz would respond by saying that this was not true, and that it was only joined to Georgia by Stalin, who was a Georgian. (They would both be right. Abkhazia and Georgia have at times been united and at times separated during their thousands of years as neighbours, but Abkhazia joined both the Russian and Soviet empires as a separate state.) The Georgian would then say that independence cannot be built on ethnic cleansing. The Abkhaz would probably respond by saying Stalin deliberately settled ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia to dilute its Abkhaz character, and that they sided with the invaders and were thus guilty of treason.

Sadly, I cannot imagine such an exchange ever taking place—not only because it would quickly descend into abuse, but also because young Abkhaz and Georgians now lack a common language. In Soviet times they would all have spoken Russian, but now Russian is barely taught in Georgia, young Abkhaz do not learn Georgian, and few know much English. This renders Clinton’s hope for engagement even more remote.

Western powers hope that future Georgian prosperity will entice the Abkhaz to abandon their dreams of independence and join with Georgia to get rich. Georgia has launched ambitious reforms, privatising almost everything and cutting tax and duties to some of the lowest rates in the world. This helped the economy boom for a while, but the 2008 war, combined with the financial crisis, knocked it down. Although growth is predicted this year, over half of the population lives below the poverty line. Driving through western Georgia towards the river that forms the border with Abkhazia, the prospect of Georgia attracting Abkhazians by sheer wealth looks distant. Ruined factories scar the towns, and horse-drawn carts pull people and goods to market. Abkhazia’s side of the river is also desperately poor, but Georgia hardly seems a promised land.

Aware of this, and sensing the symbolic significance of the dominoes tournament, Tbilisi did all it could to stop the event, warning countries of the potential consequences for players: “Any person entering the occupied regions of Georgia from the direction prohibited by the Law and without a notification of the Georgian authorities is a subject to a criminal responsibility,” said a letter to Brazil’s foreign ministry. Under Georgian law, anyone crossing from Russia into Abkhazia without permission faces two to four years in prison—or three to five, if they are part of a group.

The barrage was enough to persuade Armenia and Azerbaijan to stay away. Both countries border Georgia, and their players did not want to get locked up. But no one else took any notice. In fact, members of the delegations boasted about it. Dominoes had never been a geopolitical issue before.

***

Dominoes is a game almost perfectly suited to wartime, requiring nothing but a flat surface and a box of numbered tiles. It is easy to learn the rules, and can even be played in the rain. The first player starts with a single tile, then the others follow by placing their tiles so the numbers match those already on the board. This eventually creates long chains. You lose points if you have tiles left in your hand when one of your fellow players has played all of his.

The game has long been played in Abkhazia, particularly by old men on the seafront who engage in good-natured bad language and smoke heavily during marathon sessions. However it was Vladimir Korneyev, a Russian who learned the game from his father (who in turn picked it up while convalescing in hospital during the second world war), who sparked Abkhazia’s “domino revolution.” Korneyev is such an enthusiastic dominoes player that, within minutes of our meeting, he tried to persuade me to start a federation in Britain and to bring a team to the next championship. (I protested in vain that I did not even know the rules.) He first invited Abkhazian dominoes players to a tournament he organised in Russia in 2005, then encouraged them to attend the world championships in Venezuela a year later. When Abkhazia subsequently got the chance to host the tournament, it provided a prize pot of $100,000: twice the amount offered at previous championships, which may well have helped secure support for its bid to be host.

The courtship didn’t end there. Upon his arrival in Sukhum, Lucas Guittard (above right), president of the International Domino Federation, was treated like a head of state. His portrait glowered down from billboards, and his speech to the opening ceremony was punctuated by the kind of ovations enjoyed by Soviet leaders at party congresses. He revelled in it. This was only the eighth world championship, and he now has high hopes of dominoes expanding further into the ex-Soviet world. “It was Georgia that made it important for us to be here. If Georgia had not sent those letters it would not have been so important,” he said, as we sat in an anteroom by the main hall, from which the rattle of the tiles was clearly audible. “It worked out in favour of Abkhazia.”

Not every attendee was entirely happy, though. Angel Ojeda, a 72-year-old member of the US team, appreciated the warm welcome but could not help contrasting the facilities with those of their last tournament. “You have to understand, last time we were in Vegas, which has a hotel with ten restaurants, and before that we were in Costa Rica, where there were three restaurants in the hotel,” he said. We both knew what he meant.“But I’m 72 years old, I don’t worry,” he added. “I spoke to my son and he told me about the political situation and said: ‘Daddy, I would close my eyes and go;’ and I’m enjoying it, so far so good.”

I have always loved Sukhum: the elegant lines of its hotels, its wooded hills and, on a clear day, its pure white mountain peaks in the distance. Abkhazia’s coast was once home to the most prestigious resorts in the Soviet Union, and frequented by Stalin, Trotsky and almost all the high-rollers of the communist world. Yet much of it now does look seedy.

The 1992-93 war was not kind to the city, and burnt-out buildings are strewn across town. The tarmac is still scarred with the impacts of mortar shells, which leave a mark like a bear’s footprint, and the walls of apartment blocks are pitted with bullet holes. Those elegant hotels gape empty to the sky. If anything, the postwar neglect has been even more damaging. Paving stones are cracked, buildings overgrown and the tarmac crunched up by tree roots. Many streets are entirely unlit at night, unless a car happens to be going past. Vegas, it is not.

The government knows that it badly needs to repair the damage, and hopes that more recognition will allow more trade and investment. Russian money is helping, but the economy has a lot of ground to make up. Ankvab’s government will hope the 20m roubles it spent on the dominoes championship will send, in the words of Guittard to the closing ceremony, the players out as Abkhazia’s “sporting ambassadors throughout the world.”

***

As it turned out, the tournament did not pass without scandal. Judges handed out 20 yellow cards to players whose behaviour was deemed unacceptable—in most cases because they abused the referees, although there were also reports of illegal signals between teammates—plus six red cards, and even three black cards that mean immediate expulsion from the championship. One of those cards went to Joaquin Martinez of the Dominican Republic, who was excluded from the team event for bad-mouthing a referee. Yet he had already claimed the individual tournament prize.

In the final rounds, the best players were placed on the four tables closest to the judges, and their concentration was intense. Conversation roared at the other 40 tables, where the visitors were playing only for pride, but among this elite group, it was still all to play for. Each game began with the tiles being stirred, then divided. Some players lifted them immediately, while others left them face down until it was their turn to play. Roving judges were stationed at every table, watching for illegal gestures or other foul play.

With prizes only available to half of the finalists, they knew the stakes were high. They sat almost motionless as the chains of dominoes grew between them. Martinez’s victory was not assured until the last few games, but he did not relax even when it was all over. At the press conference, he was quiet and nervous, only looking happy when he held his cheque for $8,000 aloft and stood on the podium with his country’s national anthem booming around him.

As the players returned to their hotel for a farewell banquet, I slipped away and wandered down to the seafront to watch the old men playing their more leisurely games. The surf crashed against the sea wall, the wind rustled through the palm trees in the evening half-light. The ancient rhythms of Abkhazia were returning after the excitement of the championship, although the men still wanted to know who had won. I told them, and added that the best Abkhazian player had finished 15th.

Giorgi Ardzinba, a retired man who always walks the seafront in the evenings, shrugged without taking his eyes off his friends’ game. It is not the winning that matters, he said. “There are even people in Russia who don’t know what Abkhazia is. We might not have won the championship, but now there are people from beyond the ocean who know that we have a country. They will tell other people, and that has to help us, if only a little.”

Source: Prospect Magazine

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