The recent election of a Russian citizen as the head of the separatist republic of South Ossetia could represent a new challenge for Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. South Ossetia's newly elected leader -- a local businessman who holds a Russian passport -- has made it clear he will seek closer ties with Moscow and demand that Georgia recognize his region's sovereignty. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch speaks with two Georgian experts who tell him how they believe recent political developments in the region could affect peace talks with Tbilisi.
Prague, 11 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 6 December, voters in Georgia's northern breakaway republic of South Ossetia went to the polls to choose a new president in a controversial run-off election that may turn into a new headache for Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Official results released today by the electoral commission in the regional capital, Tskhinvali, show that 38-year-old Eduard Kokoev -- an ethnic Ossetian businessman who holds a Russian passport -- garnered 53 percent of the votes. Parliament speaker and regional communist leader Stanislav Kochiev came in second with 40 percent.
Georgia's Prime News agency today quotes South Ossetia's Central Electoral Commission Chairwoman Bella Plieva as saying Kokoev will be sworn in next week (18 December).
Georgian leaders -- who officially refer to South Ossetia as the Tskhinvali region or designate it by its ancient Georgian name of Samachablo -- describe the ballot as illegal. South Ossetia's 19,000-strong ethnic Georgian minority, which represents some 25 percent of the local population, boycotted the election.
Kokoev will take over from 69-year-old veteran politician Lyudvig Chibirov, who was defeated on 18 November in the first round.
On 3 December, Kokoev told the Moscow-based "Kommersant-Daily" newspaper that, should he become president, he would seek closer ties with the neighboring Russian region of Northern Ossetia-Alaniya and see that South Ossetia is integrated into the Russia Federation as an "associate member."
Kokoev did not say how South Ossetia could legally merge with Georgia's northern neighbor, nor did he refer to a controversial bill adopted earlier this year (28 June) by Russia's State Duma (lower house) to facilitate the admission of foreign states, or parts of foreign countries, to the Russian Federation.
Kokoev also said he would insist that relations between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali be based on "equal rights" -- in other words, that Georgia recognize South Ossetia's sovereignty.
South Ossetia officially seceded from Georgia in 1990, months after the local parliament voted to raise the status of the region to an autonomous republic, prompting then-Georgian nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia to launch a military campaign against the separatists.
In 1992, shortly after Shevardnadze ousted Gamsakhurdia and became Georgia's new head of state, a Moscow-sponsored cease-fire agreement brought the conflict to an end and provided for the deployment of Russian, Georgian, and Ossetian peacekeepers in the region. Four years later, then-parliament speaker Chibirov was elected South Ossetia's first president.
Despite mediation offered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to bring both sides to a peace agreement, Georgia and South Ossetia remain formally at war.
Some officials in Tbilisi believe Moscow is hampering peace talks by secretly supporting the separatist government, as they say it does in Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway province. Russia denies the charge, claiming it is only interested in bringing peace to the region.
Georgian Special Affairs Minister Malkhaz Kakabadze complains that no significant progress has been made in the peace talks recently. Kakabadze, who is in charge of peace negotiations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, told our correspondent: "In fact, the [peace] process is stalled. I do not want to say that this is a deliberate policy on the part of the Russian leadership, but, strangely enough, those people who represent Russia at the peace talks sometimes take certain liberties. For example, they say that Russia has interests [in the region]. We believe that this kind of statement is incompatible with the mission assigned to peace mediators. As a minimum, mediators should be neutral. This, of course, worries and surprises us."
Analysts generally doubt that Kokoev's election will contribute to a quick resolution of the conflict.
On 8 December, the Russian website vesti.ru reported that the accession of a Russian citizen to the post of South Ossetian president might prompt Georgia to adopt a tougher stance in the negotiation process.
Regional media have also said recent political developments in South Ossetia could give Russia additional means of applying pressure on Georgia while both countries are negotiating a new friendship treaty meant to replace an earlier pact that has never been ratified by Moscow.
Eldar Shengelaya is the deputy speaker of Georgia's parliament. He also chairs a parliamentary commission set up two years ago to monitor the situation in South Ossetia. In an interview with RFE/RL, Shengelaya cautiously assessed the outcome of last week's South Ossetian presidential ballot.
"It is too early to draw any conclusions, even based on Kokoev's recent statements. Kokoev is a totally new figure -- I would even say unexpected -- and it is very difficult to predict how he will act once he will run the [Tskhinvali] region. On the one hand, he made some rather extremist statements during the electoral campaign -- but, on the other hand, he subsequently softened his stance. We need time to understand whether he will be more radical, or more compromise-oriented [than his predecessor]. We need time to assess the situation."
Kokoev's election came as a surprise to most analysts. A former wrestling champion, he ran the Tskhinvali Communist Youth (Komsomol) municipal committee from 1989 to 1992 and settled in Moscow after fighting in the Georgian-Ossetian war. From 1997 to 1999, Kokoev headed South Ossetia's trade representation in the Russian capital.
Kokoev was virtually unknown until last month when he took the lead in the first round of the presidential election. Moscow-based media have linked his surprise victory to alleged ties with Russia's political establishment and business community.
Chibirov has accused his victorious rival of suspected links with Moscow-based smuggling rings operating in South Ossetia, a charge Kokoev has dismissed as "absurd."
Besides advocating closer ties with Russia, Kokoev wants Shevardnadze to recognize what he describes as "the genocide of the South Ossetian people" and is demanding that Georgia apologize for staging a war that killed hundreds and turned thousands of Ossetian and Georgian civilians into refugees.
In Kakabadze's opinion, Kokoev's statements clearly suggest the president-elect enjoys support outside South Ossetia: "When somebody makes this kind of statement, one has to assume that he does so on behalf of certain political forces or circles. Kokoev is just a front man. I don't know him personally, but he is a Russian citizen. Once you've said that, there is no point in commenting further. He is a Russian citizen who has ties with certain circles in Russia."
Asked to comment about Kokoev's alleged links with Moscow, Shengalaya gave a more cautious assessment: "All previous South Ossetian leaders have enjoyed the support of Moscow. So, to me, the situation is not new, and there is nothing exceptional here. Of course, given the difficult relationships that presently exist between Russia and Georgia, one might be tempted to play all kinds of tricky games. But I personally think that we are moving toward normalizing our relations with Russia and, sooner or later, that will happen."
Shengalaya says that, whatever stance Kokoev will eventually take, Georgia still hopes to come to an agreement with South Ossetia, where he believes the situation is much more favorable to a peace settlement than it is in Abkhazia.
Kakabadze also says Georgia is committed to solving its dispute with South Ossetia through peaceful means, but he warned against any attempt to derail negotiations: "Our position is that the peace process should continue. Otherwise, if the peace process were interrupted or if negotiations were broken up, there would be only one solution left -- that is, the policy Russia has decided to apply to Chechnya. But we would not like to solve our domestic problems that way. We would like to solve them peacefully."
Although Tbilisi and Tskhinvali have been unable to settle their dispute, there has been no major outbreak of violence in the region for the past nine years. Many analysts believe that personal relations between Shevardnadze and Chibirov have contributed to maintaining a fragile status quo in the region.
The Georgian leader has not commented yet on Kokoev's election. Addressing journalists yesterday (10 December) at a weekly press briefing, Shevardnadze did not even mention the situation in South Ossetia.
Commenting last month (19 November) on the first round, the Georgian president said he would cooperate with any candidate South Ossetia's 34,000 registered voters choose as their leader. But he could hardly conceal his dismay at Chibirov's defeat.
Kokoev's election comes at a particularly inopportune time for Georgia, still recovering from last month's political crisis, which saw the president dismiss the entire government. Georgia also faces Russia's unabated pressure to expel Chechen fighters allegedly located in its northeastern Pankisi gorge.
Upcoming presidential elections in North Ossetia, set for 27 January, could create additional problems for Georgia. Among the contenders is Russian State Duma deputy Anatolii Chekhoev, a former South Ossetian Communist Party leader who advocates the unification of both Ossetias.