The presidential polls, announced on January 17, will be held in Georgia’s Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia on Sunday, April 9. The referendum on renaming the region into “the Republic of South Ossetia – the State of Alania” will be held simultaneously with the presidential election.
According to local election administration, 72 polling stations will be opened in the region, while five more will function in other places, including three in the Russian province of North Ossetia-Alania, one in Moscow, and another one in Sokhumi.
There is no credible data about number of voters in the region. Sputnik South Ossetia news agency reported that around 32,736 voters have been registered, but no official information has been issued by the election administration.
The election is going to be monitored by observers from the Russian Federation, as well as from the regions of Abkhazia, Donbass, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria.
Three candidates are running in the polls: the incumbent Leonid Tibilov; Parliamentary Chairman Anatoly Bibilov and the State Security Committee (security service) officer Alan Gagloev.
Tibilov, himself a former head of the State Security Committee, became the region’s leader in April 2012. His election followed the controversy around the presidential election in late 2011, when victory of the opposition candidate Alla Jioyeva was annulled, despite protests by her supporters. Anatoly Bibilov, who was the losing opponent of Jioeva in 2011, is now believed to be Tibilov’s main contender.
In the pre-election campaign, all candidates stressed the need for societal unity and development. Tibilov campaigned actively on “stability and development” ticket and promised deeper integration with Russia, while Bibilov’s program included more detailed plans for fixing various infrastructural problems in rural areas.
Tibilov and Bibilov accused each other of ineffectiveness in their current posts, as well as friendliness towards Tbilisi, though this last accusation was hardly substantiated by either side.
Gagloev was relatively marginalized during the pre-election campaign.
Eduard Kokoity’s Unsuccessful Comeback
An attempt by the former South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity to join the fray was unsuccessful. On March 4 the region’s election administration refused to register Kokoity as a candidate citing that he did not permanently live in the region for the past five years. Kokoity appealed against the ruling in the Supreme Court, but the latter upheld the election administration’s earlier decision.
Kokoity held protest rallies and accused Vladimir Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov - of engineering the decision of the South Ossetian election commission. While Kokoity stressed his loyalty to Putin himself, he called Surkov “a crook” who was acting as if he was South Ossetia’s “landlord.” None of that has helped him to become a candidate, however. Kokoity remains out of the race.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin apparently knows who its favorite is.
On March 21 Vladimir Putin met with the Tskhinvali incumbent Leonid Tibilov in Moscow. During the meeting, Putin wished Tibilov “good luck” in the coming election. Many in the region, including Tibilov himself, have interpreted Putin’s words as a sign of his endorsement.
Tibilov’s opponent Anatoly Bibilov, who visited Moscow three days later, managed to secure the audience with the Chair of Russia’s Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko – not the most authoritative figure within Moscow’s power structures.
Other signs of Moscow’s favor of Tibilov include a visit by the Russia’s ruling United Russia party delegation, who held a meeting with Tibilov in Tskhinvali, and a statement by the United Russia Supreme Council Chairman Boris Grizlov, who said that his party supported Tibilov’s decision to run for the second term - all shortly before the election day.
Will Russia Annex the Region?
All three candidates support the region’s entry into the Russian Federation.
Bibilov said in one of his pre-election interviews that there was an agreement between Tibilov and himself to hold the referendum on joining the Russian Federation sometime after the presidential election in 2017. Tibilov, however, responded that Bibilov’s statement was premature, adding that “presidential candidate should not treat such issues lightly.” The third candidate Alan Gagloyev said that Russia itself was not ready yet to make this decision, while people in Tskhinvali supported it.
Leonid Tibilov is also lobbying for the decision to rename the region, to be confirmed by the referendum that will be held on the same day as the presidential election. The purpose is to add the word “Alania” [referring to the medieval kingdom of Alania in the north Caucasus] to the region’s name, similarly to North Ossetia-Alania. The move has strong historical connotations and constitutes a claim for the territory’s Ossetian identity.
In his statement announcing the referendum, Tibilov said: “the country needs to carry the name of those, who created it. In parallel with the revival of Alan statehood, the ancient name of Alania needs to be revived as well … the ancient name of predecessors, which it shares with the people of brotherly Republic of North Ossetia-Alania in the Russian Federation”.
Georgia denounces the election as illegitimate. The referendum on renaming the region into “Alania” is viewed as especially unacceptable in Tbilisi. The President, the Prime Minister, and the Ministry of Foreign affairs have all issued statements on the matter.
According to the Georgian MFA, “by naming Georgia’s occupied region after the subject of the Russian Federation Moscow starts to use the remaining instruments against the Georgian statehood.”
The MFA also stated that the referendum on a territory, which has been subjected to ethnic cleansing and where the occupying power exerts “full control,” “irrespective of the outcomes,” will be “illegal and cannot have any legal effect.”
Around 35,000 ethnic Georgians, who were expelled from their homes in South Ossetia, will be unable to cast their ballots in the election.
Elections in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, including the coming referendum, are consistently denounced as illegitimate by the international community, with the exception of Russia and three other countries (Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru), which have recognized their independence.
The upcoming South Ossetia polls have been rejected by the United States, the European Union, Japan, Poland and Ukraine. Concerns over the polls have been voiced in the international organizations as well, including at the UN Human Rights Council and the United Nations Security Council.