The Supreme Court of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia has voided the second round of the region's election to choose a de facto leader in which an opposition candidate was leading according to early preliminary results.
The court declared the November 27 voting illegitimate after ruling that there had been significant electoral violations.
According to preliminary results of voting released on November 28, former Education Minister Alla Dzhioyeva was leading with 56.7 percent of the vote, compared to 40 percent for Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov.
Bibilov had been openly supported by Moscow, including a ringing endorsement from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The Supreme Court ruling on November 29 came in response to a complaint by Bibilov alleging that Dzhioyeva supporters had bribed and intimidated voters.
Dzhioyeva's campaign said the election was essentially free and fair and countered that Bibilov's court challenge was an attempt to subvert the legitimate results of the voting.
Legality Of Ruling Questioned
Irina Gagloyeva, the former information minister of South Ossetia and now director of the Tskhinvali IR media center, told RFE/RL that some reports suggest that a number of Supreme Court justices refused to participate in the ruling, casting doubt on its legality.
"The legal aspects of this decision will have to be analyzed," she said. "It seems obvious that it is illegal, but all the nuances have to be analyzed. In any case there will definitely be consequences. Those who voted for Dzhioyeva will definitely stand up for their rights."
Dzhioyeva's supporters had gathered outside the territory's Central Election Commission headquarters in the hours before the ruling, amid signals that officials would try to scupper the process.
Bibilov met with journalists shortly before the court's decision was announced and emphasized the need to observe legality:
"The situation in South Ossetia is becoming inflamed," he said. "But we are not the ones are inflaming things. It is not our staff. We have always said and we say again that we are acting completely within the law and will not do anything that is against the law."
In comments to RFE/RL's Georgian Service also shortly before the Supreme Court decision was made public, Dzhioyeva said the election results were valid and had been confirmed by the Election Commission, by observers from both campaigns, and by international monitors:
"All 15 members of the Central Election Commission signed the final election protocol," she said. "Considering this, the actions of the chairman of the Supreme Court, Mr. [Atsamaz] Bichenov, must be seen as absolutely unconstitutional and illegal."
Russian Duma Deputy Konstantin Shirshov, who was an election monitor from Russia, testified at the court hearing on November 29 and said that he had seen Dzhioyeva's supporters campaigning illegally at polling stations.
'People Need To Learn How To Lose'
However, Maurice Bonnot, an observer from the Paris-based Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, told RFE/RL that the election was fair.
"The election for president of South Ossetia was conducted democratically and this cannot be ignored," he said. "The electoral process and the protocols were in order -- I hear that there are complaints now, but I don't see any cause for them. We did not see any efforts to pressure voters. This election was democratic and the election should be validated. This is the choice of the people. And people need to learn how to win and how to lose as well."
South Ossetia is a region of Georgia that declared its independence in 1990. Following the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Moscow recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia. Since then, Nicaragua and two other countries have acknowledged the regions, but most of the international community considers them part of Georgia.
The Georgian government does not consider the elections there legitimate.
written in Prague by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian and Russian services