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Rebel Georgian Region Holds Election, Tension Builds


South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity addresses reporters at a polling station.

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity addresses reporters at a polling station.

TSKHINVALI, Georgia (Reuters) -- Georgia's rebel region of South Ossetia voted in its first election since Russian forces saved it from being retaken by Georgian troops, but internal tensions have grown over its leader's policies.

Georgia denounced the poll as illegal.

A sliver of land with an official population of 70,000, South Ossetia broke from central Georgian rule in a war in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union crumbled.

When Georgian forces launched an attack last August to retake it, Russian forces beat them back and Moscow has since recognized the territory as an independent state.

In the run-up to the election for a 34-seat parliament, the region's opposition, while still supporting secession from Georgia, criticized separatist leader Eduard Kokoity for squandering money pumped into the shattered region by Moscow for postwar regeneration.

"I want these elections to make life better, I want the city to finally start to be rebuilt," said Atsamas Kokoyev, a resident of the main city Tskhinvali, after voting. "I want no more war. I want life to return to normal."

Apart from Russia, only Nicaragua has recognized the region's independence.

Georgia, whose sovereignty over South Ossetia is recognized by the rest of the world, denounced the poll as illegitimate.

"What they in South Ossetia call elections are very far from real elections," Georgia's minister for reintegration, Temur Iakobashvili, told reporters in Tbilisi.

Election Test

The opposition says Kokoity, a 44-year-old former wrestler, wants to change the constitution so he can run for a third term in 2011 and that an overwhelming success in the election for a parliament would help him do this.

"He needs a submissive, dull parliament so that he can change the law and stay in power," Albert Jussoyev, the leader of the opposition, told Reuters in an interview last week.

Kokoity, who has been in power since 2001, says he does not want to stay in power. Supporters hail him for leading South Ossetia to independence after what they say were centuries of outside dominance.

"Today's election is a test of our people's maturity, a test of the stability of our democracy," Kokoity told reporters after voting. "We are voting today for an independent South Ossetia though we have close relations with Russia and will continue to strengthen those relations."

Russia has poured in money and says it will open a military base there. But thousands are still homeless after the war and thousands more unemployed.

The opposition says the population, which they estimate at less than half of the officially registered 70,000, are losing patience with Kokoity, and have called on Russia to intervene.

The local election commission says 52,436 people have been registered to vote for the 34-seat parliament and officials said more than half of those registered had turned out to vote.TSKHINVALI, Georgia (Reuters) -- The Russian-backed rebel region of South Ossetia has voted in parliamentary elections that the opposition say will be used by the local separatist leader to strengthen his grip on power.

Russia recognised South Ossetia as an independent state last year after crushing a Georgian attack on the province, which broke away from Tbilisi's rule in a war in the early 1990s.

South Ossetia, a mountainous area about the size of the smallest U.S. state, Rhode Island, was devastated in the war but the opposition say separatist leader Eduard Kokoity has squandered the funds sent by Moscow for reconstruction and crushed any dissent.

"I want these elections to make life better, I want the city to finally start to be rebuilt," said Atsamas Kokoyev, a resident of the local capital, Tskhinvali, after voting. "I want no more war. I want life to return to normal."

South Ossetia has been recognised as a sovereign state by only Russia and Nicaragua. The rest of the world still considers it part of Georgia, which lost control over the province in a war in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union crumbled.

The opposition say Kokoity, a 44-year-old former wrestler, wants to change the constitution so that he can run for a third term in 2011 and that an overwhelming success in the parliamentary elections would help him do this.

"He needs a submissive, dull parliament so that he can change the law and stay in power," Albert Jussoyev, the leader of the opposition, told Reuters in an interview last week.

Kokoity, who won elections in 2001 and 2006, says he does not want to run for a third term and supporters credit him with leading South Ossetia to independence after what they say were centuries of outside dominance.

Russia has poured in money and says it will open a military base there. But thousands are still homeless after the war and thousands more unemployed.

The opposition says the population, which they estimate at less than half of the officially registered 70,000, are losing patience with Kokoity, and have called on Russia to intervene.

The local election commission says 52,436 people have been registered to vote for the 34-seat parliament. Of the four parties taking part, three -- Unity, Communists, and the People's Party -- support Kokoity.

"If this election was free and fair then the ruling party would not get a majority and our party would get about 35-40 percent of votes, or about 10 or 11 seats in parliament," Vyacheslav Gobozov, leader of the opposition Fatherland-Socialist Party, told Reuters.

"If our concerns about the validity of the elections are confirmed then we shall contest the vote and we are already getting information about electoral violations," he said.
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