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South Ossetian Election Campaign Heats Up

Dzhambolat Tedeyev has emerged as the strongest opposition to South Ossetia's current leadership.

Dzhambolat Tedeyev has emerged as the strongest opposition to South Ossetia's current leadership.

With six weeks to go before the November 13 presidential election, the chances of a peaceful transition of power in Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region are dwindling after the Central Election Commission (TsIK) refused to register as a candidate for the ballot Russian free-style-wresting team trainer and popular opposition leader Dzhambolat Tedeyev.

Tedeyev is widely viewed as the primary challenger to South Ossetian Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov, Moscow's choice to succeed outgoing de facto President Eduard Kokoity.

Tedeyev has publicly warned Kokoity that the republic could become "the next Libya" unless arrests of his supporters stop and charges against him of "organizing mass unrest" are dropped. Kokoity in turn has accused Tedeyev of seeking, but failing, to provoke a "colored revolution." Russia, which formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent state three years ago, has not yet commented publicly on the standoff.

Tedeyev is one of 23 people who have signaled their intention of registering as candidates for the ballot to succeed Kokoity, who is barred by the republic's constitution from serving a third consecutive presidential term. The republic's Supreme Court nixed in June a petition calling for a referendum on changing the constitution to enable him to do so.

On September 30, the TsIK refused to register Tedeyev as a candidate on the grounds that he has not lived in South Ossetia for the entire past 10 years. The election law was amended in April to include that requirement, which Tedeyev claims was devised solely in order to disbar him from the ballot.

In fact, it also applies to virtually all potential opposition candidates, including People's Party leader Roland Kelekhsayev and prominent businessman Albert Dzhussoyev. Both left South Ossetia for Russia several years ago after major disagreements with the autocratic and unsavory Kokoity, who together with his close entourage is believed to have siphoned off millions of rubles allocated from the Russian federal budget to finance reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed in the August 2008 war.

Like Tedeyev, both Kelekhsayev and Dzhussoyev have announced their intention to run in the November 13 ballot. But Kelekhsayev told on October 3 after being assaulted and forcibly taken to a Tskhinvali police station where he was beaten, that he is reconsidering. Kokoity commented on October 3 to the TsIK that "many" would-be candidates who sought to disrupt the May 2009 parliamentary ballot (which Kelekhsayev's party was barred from contesting) do not qualify to register for the upcoming presidential election. The final date for submitting applications is October 9.

According to South Ossetian officials, some 150 armed supporters of Tedeyev gathered on September 30 outside the government building in Tskhinvali and tried to force their way into the TsIK's office, smashing doors and windows in the process. They were beaten off by Interior Ministry Special Forces (spetsnaz), who later cordoned off Tedeyev's home and set about rounding up and arresting dozens of his supporters. On October 1, South Ossetian Prosecutor-General Taymuraz Khugayev personally sought to deliver to Tedeyev's home notification, which Tedeyev demonstratively tore into pieces, of formal charges against him of "organizing mass unrest."

Khugayev had earlier been identified as Kokoity's preferred successor (his sister is married to Kokoity's brother), but on September 18 at Kokoity's proposal his Yedinstvo (Unity) party unanimously endorsed as its presidential candidate Minister for Emergency Situations Anatoly Bibilov.

The Anti-Kokoity Option

On October 2, Tedeyev wrote to Kokoity warning that the standoff could escalate into "a political catastrophe." He proposed "sitting down at the negotiating table" for talks to resolve the situation that Arsen Fadzayev, who represents neighboring North Ossetia in the Russian State Duma, had offered to mediate.

Kokoity rejected that suggestion outright, branding Fadzayev (likewise a former wrestling champion) a "provocateur." As of October 3, Tedeyev claimed some 1,000 of his supporters were gathered outside his house to prevent his arrest.

Tedeyev's popularity is hard to quantify, and the reasons for it are unclear. His political credentials are questionable, and a U.S.-Georgian joint study in 2004 of organized crime in South Ossetia and Abkhazia claims that prior to his falling-out with Kokoity, he served as protector and patron for gangs engaged in smuggling and black-market activities.

But for all his imputed shortcomings, Tedeyev may simply be widely regarded by default as the most palatable alternative to Bibilov or any other member of Kokoity's entourage. on October 2 quoted one woman from the hundreds who had gathered outside Tedeyev's home as saying: "We shall stay here to the end. Today we are all witnesses to the fact that South Ossetia is a dictatorship, not a democracy, and we have a long way to go to become a state based on the rule of law. If they arrest Tedeyev, they might as well arrest the whole of South Ossetian society, we are all on his side."

A further indication of the support Tedeyev enjoys is that no fewer than six members of the TsIK voted in favor of registering him as a presidential candidate, even though he is not strictly speaking eligible in light of the 10-year residency requirement. Two more TsIK members abstained; seven voted against. South Ossetian Interior Minister Valery Valiyev rejected on October 2 as untrue Tedeyev's claim that 19 police officers had gone over to his side.

The Ossetian Candidate?

The question thus arises: is Tedeyev a loose cannon, or is he acting at the behest of an interest group in Moscow, and if yes, which one, and to what purpose? Russian political commentator Aleksei Martynov has made the point that Tedeyev is a Russian government functionary, and that the vandalism by his supporters puts the State Sports Committee "in a difficult position."

On the one hand, the Russian leadership has repeatedly warned Kokoity to desist from his single-minded campaign to discredit and undermine Vadim Brovtsev, the Russian businessman named South Ossetian prime minister in August 2009 with a brief to curtail the suspected embezzlement by Kokoity and his cronies of funds allocated for postconflict reconstruction.

On the other hand, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose election to a third presidential term in March 2012 is no longer in doubt, has signaled his intention to absorb South Ossetia into the Russian Federation as part of an enlarged Ossetian republic. In early August, Putin suggested that South Ossetia could become part of the Russian Federation if "the Ossetian people" give their approval.

Then on September 18, prominent members of Yedinstvo and the pro-Kokoity People's Party (not to be confused with Kelekhsayev's eponymous extraparliamentary party) announced the planned creation of an Ossetian People's Front Russia-Ossetia, of which Kokoity, according to an unnamed North Ossetian official quoted by the Russian daily "Kommersant," may be named head.

That Ossetian Front will campaign for "the unification of the artificially divided Ossetian people within the framework of a single Russian Federation subject," and will reportedly seek affiliation with Putin's All-Russian National Front.

Whether Tedeyev may have been co-opted by a faction in Moscow and/or North Ossetian officials in Vladikavkaz who stand to lose their jobs if the two Ossetias are merged to wrest control of South Ossetia from the compliant Kokoity clan and defend its nominally independent status can only be guessed at.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.