They like playing dominoes in Abkhazia. As dusk falls, young men unpack their pieces on the promenade by the Black Sea in Sukhumi, the picturesque capital of this breakaway territory bidding for independence from Georgia.
The fact that Abkhazia is a largely unrecognised state does not diminish the duty on the authorities, as the territory’s controlling power, to meet their human rights obligations under international law.
Yet like playing ping pong in China, shuffling the dominoes in Abkhazia can also resonate with wider diplomatic meaning. In October, Sukhumi was proud to host the domino world championship (yes, it exists). Abkhazia didn’t win – the Dominican Republic had that honour – but it achieved its goal of gaining some international attention. More than 200 players from two dozen countries attended, including a team from the US.
We spent 90 minutes putting these points to Alexander Ankvab, Abkhazia’s de facto president – a can-do politician who takes visitors’ calls on his mobile.
He disagreed with most of our findings, though, and talked about the “new realities” he was building in Abkhazia – realities that the largely hostile international community would have to get used to, he noted.
We said his “new realities” need to be grounded in the rights of the territory’s long-established population.
Abkhazia is only recognised by Russia, Venezuela and two other tiny states, and its status is part of the bitter tensions between Russia and Georgia that peaked in their short war in August 2008.
The two countries’ breakthrough agreement on 9 November on customs arrangements is a sign that compromises are possible. Yet the annoyance in Washington and Tbilisi, and the pride in Sukhumi and Moscow, over such a seemingly harmless domino match (media reports told of intense, ultimately futile pressure on the US domino players, for instance, to withdraw) underline how politicised any dealings with Abkhazia really are.
This atmosphere does not make independent human rights work in Abkhazia very easy. In our meetings with Abkhaz officials on this visit, that came as no surprise, and Human Rights Watch rarely opts for the easy ride. But it means that, as in other territorial conflicts, a different, more creative approach is needed to protect the rights of ordinary people by the key players involved. In this case, those players include Russia, with its strong military and financial backing for the territory.