Former South Ossetian Education Minister Alla Dzhioyeva is emerging as an unlikely figurehead for an unlikely public movement.
But the 61-year-old mother of two who, according to unofficial preliminary results, won the second round of the breakaway Georgian region's election to choose a de facto leader on November 27, has become the rallying point for a populace worn ragged by war and corruption.
Following early indications that Dzhioyeva defeated Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov -- the preferred candidate of South Ossetia's Russian patrons
-- in the election, the South Ossetian Supreme Court annulled the ballot
, accepting Bibilov's charges that Dzhioyeva's campaign had bribed and intimidated voters.
The region's parliament quickly scheduled a new election for March 2012 and, for good measure, banned Dzhioyeva from participating in it.
All week, crowds have taken to the streets in the capital, Tskhinvali, both to express their support for Dzhioyeva and to protest what they see as a brazen effort to subvert an election that was generally regarded as fair and democratic.
A young man among the protesters this week, who identified himself only by the first name Sarmat, told RFE/RL that the movement was becoming bigger than just Dzhioyeva's campaign.
"You know, I am not so much a supporter of Alla Dzhioyeva as I am a supporter of the idea that everything should be done lawfully," Sarmat said.
"On November 27, the people chose their president, so why has a situation developed in which the newly elected president of the Republic of South Ossetia suddenly is denied recognition that she won the election? It's a complicated situation. People have gathered on Theater Square to demand their right to choose."
Irina Gagloyeva, a former government spokeswoman who now heads the IR media center in Tskhinvali, agrees. "People want the truth; they want to see the law working and their constitutional rights respected," she says. "After all, they made their choice and that choice must be recognized, even if someone doesn't like it. [At the protests] I see people who voted for Bibilov, but now they believe that the choice of the majority must be respected. If you respect the choice of the people, you respect the people."
Against Long Odds
South Ossetia is an unlikely place for such a movement to emerge. The tiny pro-Russian region declared its independence from Georgia in 1990 and fought a bloody civil war to secure a shaky de facto independence that is heavily reliant on economic, political, and military support from Moscow. Some 50,000 Georgians who fled their homes in the fighting in South Ossetia remain displaced and cannot vote in the territory's elections.
Following the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Moscow recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian province, Abkhazia, as independent states.
However, Georgia and the overwhelming majority of the international community do not recognize the regions, their governments -- or the recent elections -- as legitimate.
Current leader Eduard Kokoity is facing pressure from the Kremlin and voters at home.
Even though, in South Ossetia's case, that election might yet bring to office a person openly opposed by the Kremlin and the first woman to head a political formation in the entire Caucasus region since the legendary Queen Tamar ruled Georgia in the 12th century.
Dzhioyeva does not have the fiery showmanship or charisma of, say, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She is more in the mold of former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva -- patient, practical, tenacious, and accessible. Although corruption allegations have been thrown at her at various points in her career, none of them have stuck. Her reputation is so solid that almost no one seems to have even considered that Bibilov's allegations of electoral fraud might have merit.
Dzhioyeva's road toward South Ossetia's de facto presidency had an unpromising start. But when opposition leader Dzhambolat Tedeyev -- a former wrestling champion who is currently trainer of the Russian national freestyle-wrestling team -- was barred from participating in the election, he threw his support behind her. As did former Defense Minister and war hero Anatoly Barankevich, who actively campaigned for her. The portraits of both men appear prominently on Dzhioyeva's campaign posters.
"Some people have said that Barankevich or Tedeyev will manage her," Barankevich told supporters at campaign appearances last month. "But that is not true. She manages herself."
Dzhioyeva's low-budget campaign commercials were a hodge-podge of jerky clips
from various appearances in which she promised transparency and the protection of people's rights and asserted that the people of South Ossetia shouldn't have to live "a slave's life."
Dzhioyeva supporters hold up a sign saying, "We are people, not sheep."
The message resonated with the territory's tiny population of just 30,000, fed up with the rule of President Eduard Kokoity, who has presided over the region since 2001 and whose administration is widely perceived as hopelessly corrupt and authoritarian.
As her campaign gained momentum, Dzhioyeva seemed to blossom and gain confidence. Journalists noted that her hands trembled even in the run-up to last week's election. But now she seems determined and sure of herself and her cause.
"I absolutely believe that no one can steal our victory. I absolutely believe that the forces of light will defeat the forces of darkness," she told RFE/RL on November 28. "And you will have the opportunity to congratulate me on my victory."
'An Irreproachable Strategy'
Speaking to supporters on November 30 in central Tskhinvali, Dzhioyeva seemed quite transformed from the person who campaigned a few weeks back and even more determined to carry on.
"Throughout all this, we have felt enormous support from the people. Now I am asking you to ensure that no force in society can break our solidarity with you," she said.
"I also want to address the security forces, which have very meritoriously conducted themselves all this time: You are also our sons, and there is no force that can pit us against one another. I would like to thank you for professionally carrying out your duties."
The Kremlin's favored candidate, Anatoly Bibilov, seems to be on the outside looking in.
Since the Supreme Court ruling against her, Dzhioyeva's patience and moderation have been credited with helping keep the situation from getting out of control. But she is not backing down. She has formed an advisory council to conduct negotiations with the Kokoity regime and has organized a petition calling for the disbanding of the parliament that voted to bar her from participating in the rescheduled election next year.
She insists, clearly but with undue emotion, that she is the lawfully elected leader of South Ossetia. She has declined to meet with Sergei Vinokurov
, the official that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dispatched to Tskhinvali to defuse the standoff, saying the situation is an internal matter for South Ossetia.
"I think that Alla Dzhioyeva's campaign -- and she herself -- have chosen an irreproachable strategy -- that is, peaceful demonstrations and a willingness to negotiate," says RFE/RL Echo of the Caucasus correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who has been following the situation in Tskhinvali.
"They are open to dialogue with the authorities. In the face of such a strategy, it is very difficult to provoke any sort of aggressive actions."
Written in Prague by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian and Russian services. Liz Fuller contributed to this report