Breakaway region of South Ossetia will hold presidential elections on Sunday with some local observers in Tskhinvali predicting a runoff as a possible scenario of the polls in which eleven candidates are running.
Incumbent South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, who has been the de facto president of the region since 2001, will step down after the elections as his second and final five-year term in office expires.
He, however, is not expected to exit from the local political scene. His opponents claim that Kokoity, who was elected as the ruling Unity party’s chairman in September, is plotting a comeback to power by becoming a parliamentary speaker. A scenario in which the sitting parliament will be disbanded after the presidential elections is widely speculated in Tskhinvali.
Initially there were up to thirty would-be candidates willing to run in the Sunday’s elections; some withdrew from the race and several others were barred from running, including several of Kokoity’s the fiercest opponents.
Russian free-style-wrestling team trainer, Jambolat Tedeev, was barred from running on the grounds of failing to meet 10-year residency requirement. The move triggered street protests by Tedeev’s supporters, followed by series of arrests of his supporters by the authorities. Eventually Tedeev announced about his support to an opposition candidate Alla Jioyeva, former education minister of the breakaway region, who said that she decided to run after all “the heavyweight” opposition candidates were barred from running.
Minister for Emergency Situations of the breakaway region, Anatoly Bibilov, is believed to be a frontrunner. In August the Russian daily Kommersant reported that Bibilov would be the Kremlin’s pick for the next leader of South Ossetia. Russian lawmakers visited the region this month, openly campaigning in favor of Bibilov.
“When some ask why Russia puts a stake on Bibilov, a question arises as to why should not it put a stake on [Bibilov]? Russia invests funds in the development of our state. And why such strategic partner cannot give its preference to anyone?” Bibilov said on October 14. “I accept it with gratitude and understand that this is a show of huge confidence towards me.”
According to reports from the region, Moscow’s open support to one of the candidates is triggering irritation of some political forces in Tskhinvali. Even incumbent leader Eduard Kokoity spoke against of what he called “excessive interference in the internal affairs.”
“These are the most shameful elections in the history of a young Republic of South Ossetia. Participation of some candidates with immoral past discredits these elections. Excessive interference in internal affairs of our state and attempts to split our society will not lead to anything good,” he said on November 3 without elaborating into details.
Whom Kokoity himself is supporting has become an issue of widespread speculations in Tskhinvali.
Although publicly he and his ruling party announced about the support of Bibilov, opponents say that tacitly he is in fact supporting other candidates, particularly Georgi Kabisov, head of the state committee for information and communications and Alan Kotaev, deputy head of Tskhinvali administration. Stanislav Kochiev, leader of Communist Party and former parliamentary speaker, said Kokoity’s declared support to Bibilov’s nomination was farce.
“What’s the need in pretending to support a candidate, which Moscow wants [to become a new leader], while in fact he [Kokoity] does not him [Bibilov] to become a president?” Kochiev told the Kommersant.
Kochiev was sacked from the post of the breakaway region’s parliamentary speaker after confrontation with Kokoity; his Communist Party has announced about supporting Bibilov in the elections.
Like other candidates Bibilov too is vowing “to wage merciless struggle against corruption, which is eroding highest echelons of the government”. He also vows to put an end to misappropriation of aid funds allocated by Russia after the August, 2008 war.
Bibilov, like some other presidential candidates, advocates for “unification” with Russia’s North Ossetian Republic. In his written pre-election program Bibilov, however, also says that “moving towards unification” will be “a long process”.
Another candidate Giorgi Kabisov, who also advocates for “unification”, told the Russian daily Kommersant: “Moscow has never shown a sign that it would abandon us. But times can change. I am not sure that in several years people will not come to power in Georgia or in Russia, who will manage to make a deal between each other and then South Ossetia may turn into a bargaining chip in this deal.”
84 polling stations in the breakaway region will open at 8am on November 13. One polling station will be opened in Moscow and another one in breakaway Abkhaz capital Sokhumi. There will be no polling stations in Russia’s North Ossetian Republic. An opposition candidate, Alla Jioyeva, said that by this move the authorities actually barred several thousand South Ossetians, currently living in North Ossetia, from voting. She argued that it was done because it would have been difficult to manipulate with those votes.
Opposition also argues that the authorities have overinflated number of voters. Reportedly there are 34,000 voters in the breakaway region. But Jioyeva told the Kommersant that even the entire population of the region was not 34,000.
Simultaneously with presidential elections, the breakaway region will also hold a referendum on Sunday asking voters whether or not to make Russian, together with the Ossetian, the official language.
Elections in the breakaway region are denounced as illegitimate by Tbilisi and the international community, except of Russia and few other countries, which have recognized the region.
NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said when he visited Georgia last week, that the Alliance’s reaction to the elections in South Ossetia “will be exactly the same as to the elections in Abkhazia” in August, 2011.
“We pursue a clear non-recognition policy; we have not recognized and we will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states… We insist on full respect for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Rasmussen said on November 9.