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Georgia: South Ossetia To Vote In Independence Referendum

An activist encourages people to vote (epa) PRAGUE, November 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia is set to hold a referendum this weekend on whether to proclaim itself -- again -- an independent state.

The referendum, like a similar vote last month in Moldova's separatist region of Transdniester, is likely to receive no legal recognition from the international community. But it is likely to exacerbate existing tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow, which openly supports South Ossetia's separatist bid.

Likely 'Yes' Vote

Few expect anything but a massive "yes" vote for independence on November 12.

One resident of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, says the vote is only an affirmation of an earlier referendum in the breakaway region. "I think we don’t even need to urge people to vote. We all can see that everybody is full of enthusiasm and therefore, I have no doubt at all that every rationally thinking person on the 12th of November will vote for the independence of the South Ossetian republic, for the path which was already determined by the people on January 19, 1992."

In that referendum, 98 percent of voters opted for independence.

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, who will run for reelection the same day, says the new exercise gives younger Ossetians a chance to have their voices heard.

"We have a new generation now. The citizens of the republic of South Ossetia who were just 3 or 4 years old at the time haven't had the opportunity to vote on the future of their people," Kokoity said. "We simply want to demonstrate that is our will; an announcement by all the people of South Ossetia. It's the highest form of democracy. It's a response by the people of South Ossetia to the aggressive policy of the Georgian government -- and, if you like, to the double standard forced on us by countries in the West."

Kosovo Example

The timing of the vote is not entirely random.

Ambassador Ron Reeve, who heads the Georgia mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), calls the South Ossetian plebiscite a "home-grown initiative" by Kokoity and the local leadership.

But he also sees the issue tied to other independence drives in Europe, particularly in Kosovo, whose final status may be resolved early next year.

Russia has suggested that "universal principles" should be drawn from the Kosovo example -- especially, Reeve notes, when applied to South Ossetia and other frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union.

"It fits in particularly with the moves on Kosovo independence now because of the Russian position on the quote, 'universality' of the Kosovo example. But this, I think, has been seized upon by the local leadership -- Kokoity and company -- as a way of sort of riding in on what they hope will be Russian support for, or even recognition at some point, of the referendum they're taking," Reeve said.

There have been suggestions in Moscow that Russia will not agree in the UN Security Council to independence for Kosovo unless it receives concessions on some of the frozen conflicts, which include Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova's Transdniester region, and a second breakaway region in Georgia, Abkhazia.

Passport To Vote

The vote will have some new twists. For example, only residents possessing South Ossetian passports can vote in the referendum.

Most South Ossetians hold Russian passports. As a result, many have been standing in long lines to receive new identity papers.

Officials say 40,000 people have been given the new papers, which they will be able to retain along with their Russian passports.

But Georgians, who make up approximately 30-40 percent of South Ossetia's estimated population of 70,000, cannot obtain the new papers unless they relinquish their Georgian citizenship.

Many of these residents may choose instead to participate in an alternative election, also on November 12, to elect an alternate, pro-Tbilisi president. Tskhinvali has dismissed the parallel vote as a "farce."

Reeve of the OSCE calls the entire exercise "unhelpful" and likely to only make it harder to eventually reach a peaceful solution to the standoff over South Ossetia.

"The situation on the ground since the direct hostilities of 2004 has been inherently tense, unstable; we have daily incidents of firings, shootings, occasionally people getting blown up by mines; there are murders, disappearances," Reeve said. "So on the ground, it’s not the most stable of environments. And I think anything which then tends to focus attention and polarize the communities around an issue such as the referendum doesn’t help."

For its part, Georgia has called the referendum "devoid of legitimacy and directed against the peace process."

A Russian peacekeeper guards a checkpoint outside the capital, Tskhinvali

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Georgia should not fear the poll, saying "the right to self-determination is part of international law."

However, Svante Cornell of Johns Hopkins University believes Russia -- which does not want to encourage the independence drives of its own restive republics, like Chechnya and Tatarstan -- is unlikely to recognize the results of the referendum.

"Russia will threaten to recognize it and Russia will use this as leverage in its relationship with [Georgia]. At the same time, I think, Russia would not benefit from recognizing this," Cornell says. "Russia benefits from the status quo, the status quo being the unrecognized territories that are pretty much dependent on Russia for their survival. And I think Russia wants to keep things exactly as they are. From a Western perspective, this [referendum] does not increase the legitimacy of the local leadership in any sense."

No International Recognition

For their part, South Ossetians don’t expect the international community to recognize the results but they argue it is important to voice their desire to be separate from Georgia.

South Ossetians, who are descended from ancient Asian tribes and speak a language remotely related to Farsi, have traditionally warm ties with Moscow but no ethnic links.

Still, as Kokoity says, their ultimate goal is to reunite with their ethnic kin in North Ossetia -- which lies just across the Caucasus Mountains, in southern Russia.

"For now, we just want to achieve independence. But of course we're going to aim toward unification, of course that's the dream of every Ossetian, both in the South and in the North," Kokoity says. "I think that in order for an ethnic minority like us to preserve our culture and our language, we have to join forces."

(RFE/RL's Georgian and North Caucasus services contributed to this report.)

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