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Georgia: South Ossetia Seeks To Contain Opposition Challenge

(RFE/RL) PRAGUE, November 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Voters in Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia will head to the polls on November 12 to choose a new president and to participate in a referendum on the unrecognized republic's independent status.

Aside from choosing a president on November 12, voters in Georgia's breakaway republic will be asked to vote in a referendum on whether they want South Ossetia "to maintain its status as an independent state and be recognized [as such] by the international community."

Even though the international community does not recognize either the election or the referendum as legally valid, both processes are evolving into a proxy standoff between Russia, which for the past decade has consistently sought to use South Ossetia as leverage against the Georgian leadership, and the central Georgian government in Tbilisi, which hopes to mobilize and capitalize on mounting domestic opposition to the incumbent South Ossetian leadership.

In a bid to neutralize that challenge, the South Ossetian Prosecutor-General's Office has brought criminal charges against candidates running in the "alternative" presidential election scheduled to take place the same day.

A Confident Kokoity

Eduard Kokoity, a 42-year-old former Komsomol-activist-turned-businessman who was elected South Ossetian president in a runoff ballot in 2001, is seeking a second term, apparently with Moscow's backing.

The Georgian daily "Rezonansi" suggested on September 2 that Russia might prefer South Ossetian First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiyev, but he is not among Kokoity's three registered challengers. They are government officials Inal Pukhaev and Leonid Tibilov, and a relative unknown, Oleg Gabodze, according to on November 7.

In a November 8 interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Kokoity said that he is confident of reelection, and for that reason has not campaigned publicly. He is, moreover, likely to garner the votes of thousands of former residents of South Ossetia who fled to neighboring North Ossetia during the fighting of 1990-92. Six polling stations have been established on the territory of Russia's Republic of North Ossetia-Alania to enable those refugees to cast their ballots, reported on November 7.

The South Ossetian media launched a vicious campaign to discredit and compromise Dmitry Sanakoyev, accusing him of corruption, duplicity, and collaborating with Georgian intelligence.

But a further challenge has emerged in the form of the so-called National Liberation Union of Ossetians comprising domestic opposition to Kokoity, who is widely perceived as presiding over a corrupt and incompetent administration that takes its orders from Moscow and is either unable or unwilling to resolve the grave economic and social problems the enclave faces.

The National Liberation Union, which apparently enjoys the tacit approval, if not the open support, of the central Georgian government in Tbilisi, plans to hold an alternative presidential ballot on November 12. Voting will take place at 25 polling stations, primarily in Georgian-populated villages of South Ossetia that do not recognize Kokoity's authority and in villages with a mixed Georgian-Ossetian population.

The Alternative Lineup

Five candidates have registered for the "alternative" poll, one of whom, Maia Chigoyeva-Tsaboshvili, initially sought to run against Kokoity but was refused registration in early October on the grounds that she does not reside in South Ossetia. The other four are Gogi Chigoyev, Teimuraz Djeragoyev, Tamar Charayeva, and Dmitry Sanakoyev, who served as defense minister and then as prime minister for several months in 2001 under Kokoity's predecessor, Lyudvig Chibirov, but left South Ossetia for Moscow after Kokoity came to power, reported on November 7.

Sanakoyev's brother Vladimir is chairman of the National Liberation Union. Earlier this week, the South Ossetian media launched a vicious campaign to discredit and compromise Dmitry Sanakoyev, accusing him of corruption, duplicity, and collaborating with Georgian intelligence, charges he denied in a November 9 interview with the Georgian television station Rustavi-2.

Some Georgian observers regard Dmitry Sanakoyev as Tbilisi's preferred candidate. His election manifesto envisages the restoration of the region's status as a republic within Georgia and a program of measures to spur economic growth, according to the Georgian television station Rustavi-2 on November 5. Georgian analyst Mamuka Areshidze has suggested that in the event of a Sanakoyev victory, the central Georgian government might seek to strengthen his position by granting him the post of vice president or deputy prime minister, according to Georgia Today on November 7.

The South Ossetian leadership has estimated the total number of Georgian voters as not exceeding 14,000 (of a total population of some 82,000).

Insofar as the combined Ossetian population (including refugees in North Ossetia) considerably outnumbers the Georgian community of South Ossetia, a victory for any one of the candidates in the "alternative" ballot would necessarily be contingent on many Ossetian voters rejecting the status quo that Kokoity represents -- continued economic hardship in the hope of eventual recognition of South Ossetian independence by the international community -- in favor of accommodation with Georgia.

The South Ossetian leadership has estimated the total number of Georgian voters as not exceeding 14,000 (of a total population of some 82,000). Moscow, however, is unlikely to countenance any weakening of its hold over South Ossetia, and could seek to engineer the outcome of the ballot to manufacture the appearance of a convincing victory for Kokoity, rather than risk a repeat of the crisis that erupted two years ago when its favored candidate for president of the similarly unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia was defeated in the first round of voting.

High Democracy

Kokoity has, predictably, branded the alternative presidential ballot as a farce, and will doubtless reject the outcome. In his interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, he explained that the decision to hold a second referendum on independence was made in order to give the younger generation of voters, who did not participate in the previous referendum in 1992, a chance to register their views.

He went on to describe the planned referendum as "the highest form of democracy," and as a response to what he termed the "aggressive policies of the Georgian leadership" and the "double standards" that the international community is seeking to impose. "We are Europeans, and we want to live in Europe," Kokoity argued.

At the same time, he admitted that securing international recognition for his unrecognized republic would be a long and arduous undertaking. And he acknowledged that independence for South Ossetia is viewed as an intermediate stage toward the unification of the two Ossetian republics.

North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov has lobbied energetically for reunification since his appointment last year. But international recognition of South Ossetia currently looks utopian in light of recent statements by Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, affirming their support for Georgia's territorial integrity.

On October 25, Putin denied that Russia seeks to enlarge its territory at Georgia's expense by incorporating South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he suggested that those two unrecognized republics should seek to mend their differences with the Georgian government.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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