Dominoes is more than just a game in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia. It's a welcome diversion in a place that still bears the scars of war and where unemployment is rampant.
But this week, the pastime is taking on a whole new meaning with the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, hosting the 8th World Domino Championship. It's far from a major sporting event, but is nevertheless being viewed as a major achievement in the tiny region, which declared independence from Georgia following a war in the early 1990s and further distanced itself from Tbilisi after the brief Georgia-Russia war in 2008. It is only recognized by Russia and a handful of other countries.
Officials hope that bringing foreign delegations -- including one from the United States -- and a bit of international attention to the isolated territory could help change the state of play for Abkhazia on the world stage.
Georgian authorities in Tbilisi are less than pleased.
The potential is not lost on the residents of Sukhumi, who have watched the territory’s Russian-backed government spend a reported 20 million rubles ($650,000) on fireworks, cruises for delegates, and other championship-related activities.
'Small, Marvelous Country'
A Sukhumi resident who identified himself as Raul said he was confident the event would raise the territory's profile.
"Representatives from the American delegation came, as well as from the Venezuelan delegation," Raul said. "The fact that the championships are being held here is big politically. The world will find out about our existence -- that here’s Abkhazia, this small, marvelous country, a country with soul. I think they will tell the world about this. This is the beginning of international recognition.”
Russia was first to recognize Abkhazia’s unilateral declaration of independence after the 2008 war with Georgia, which pushed the Georgian military out of the territory and its sister breakaway region, South Ossetia.
Recognition followed by Nicaragua and Venezuela, and then by the tiny Pacific island states Vanuatu and Tuvalu. In the case of Nauru, recognition came amid reports of Russian financial incentives.
The United States and the European Union have repeatedly stated their support for Georgia's territorial integrity and have steadfastly refused to recognize Abkhazia.
But, to the delight of the authorities in Sukhumi, that hasn’t stopped delegates from the U.S. National Domino Federation from making the trip to this year’s championships.
Friends With The Abkhazians
Speaking alongside de facto Abkhaz Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia ahead of the tournament, Manuel Oquendo, the president of the U.S. league, said he had bonded with the territory’s people.
"Like I told the prime minister, if the U.S.A. doesn't win the championship, we'll go back to the United States like champions," he said. "We have won the friendship of the people of Abkhazia."
For his part, Lakerbaia left no doubts as to his government’s stake in the matter, hoping that “the time will come when the U.S. government follows the example of the U.S. Domino Federation."
The shuffling of plastic pieces, however, isn’t likely to move U.S. policy, as a State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL.
“The United States continues its unwavering support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders," the spokesperson said. "The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The American participants in the World Domino Championship are private citizens from an independent, nongovernmental group.”
Maxim Gvindjia, Abkhazia’s de facto foreign minister, said in the days leading up to the tournament that the U.S. players had faced significant pressure over their plans to participate.
“The president of the U.S. Domino Federation was even invited to the Georgian Embassy in the U.S. and then he was invited to the State Department," Gvindjia said. "Nevertheless, he did not back down from coming to Abkhazia or wasn’t scared off, to put it another way.”
A Call From Saakashvili
According to Russian press reports, U.S. dominoes head Oquendo said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili even personally tried to dissuade him over the phone, allegedly offering to create a dominoes federation in Georgia and hold a tournament there.
The U.S. State Department did not confirm any contact with the U.S. players, and Georgia’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for information.
There are other indications that Tbilisi isn’t amused.
Georgia’s Foreign Ministry has said that countries taking part in this championship would only be able to enter Abkhazia through its border with Russia, and in doing so, would violate Georgian law.
More than 200 participants from some two dozen countries are attending the tournament, including Russia, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. Players from Georgia’s other breakaway territory, South Ossetia, as well as from Moldova’s Russian-backed separatist province, Transdniester, are also participating.
Lucas Guittard, the president of the International Domino Federation, which oversees the annual tournament, also alleges that other countries’ delegations received letters from the Georgian government.
'It's A Big Deal'
Guittard, who is from Venezuela, one of the few states to recognize Abkhazia, met with the territory’s de facto President Aleksandr Ankvab on the eve of the championships.
The website of the Abkhaz Domino Federation
says Guittard appealed to his country’s president, Hugo Chavez, to facilitate travel to the tournament for Caribbean delegations.
While it remains to be seen if Sukhumi can gain diplomatically from the tournament, its domino enthusiasts argue that it merits recognition based on results alone.
At the 2009 and 2010 championships, the Abkhaz team took 10th place.
This year, says a Sukhumi resident who spoke to our correspondent, it’s straight to the top.
"It's a big deal that -- even if we don't win -- that some representatives of something like 26 countries came here," he said. "It's already very prestigious for our republic. We're glad -- and we'll also take victory."
written by Richard Solash in Washington, with reporting from Sukhumi by Vitaliy Sharia and Levon Galustyan of RFE/RL's Georgian Service