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Georgia: Russian Businessman Takes Lead In South Ossetia Voting

Prague, 19 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian citizen is leading in a controversial presidential election held yesterday in Georgia's separatist province of South Ossetia.

Unofficial preliminary results released today show that Eduard Kokoyev, a 38-year-old, Moscow-based businessman born in South Ossetia, garnered more than 48 percent of the votes. Parliament speaker Stanislav Kochiev came in second with 25 percent, while 69-year-old incumbent President Lyudvig Chibirov placed third with less than 20 percent.

Kokoyev and Kochiev are likely to face each other in a run-off at a date the Central Electoral Commission is expected to announce within the next five days.

The constitution of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia says that for a first round to be valid, one candidate must obtain at least 50 percent of the vote. Whoever wins more than half the votes in the run-off will be elected president.

The outcome of yesterday's first round is likely to spark further controversy in Georgia and pose new challenges to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. In an apparent bid to make the best of it, Shevardnadze told journalists earlier today that he is ready to cooperate with any candidate South Ossetia's 35,000 voters choose as their leader.

"There is a theoretical chance that there will be a second round, so it would not be very tactful on my part as president of Georgia to make any comments. Whoever is going to be elected, or has already been elected, we will cooperate with him."

Noting that he has managed to maintain "rather good relations" with Chibirov, Shevardnadze said he hopes the next president will work toward a peaceful settlement of the South Ossetian conflict.

In November 1989, South Ossetia's Supreme Soviet, or parliament, voted to raise the status of the region to one of an autonomous republic, prompting a swift reaction from Georgia's then-nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Georgian troops entered South Ossetia and marched toward the regional capital, Tskhinvali, triggering a three-year armed conflict that killed thousands and drove tens of thousands -- mainly ethnic Georgians -- from their homes.

Despite a shaky cease-fire reached in 1992 and the deployment of Russian, Georgian, and Ossetian peacekeepers along the administrative border that separates the region from the rest of Georgia, both sides have been unable to reach a peace agreement.

Tskhinvali officially seceded from Georgia in 1990 and, six years later, then-parliament speaker Chibirov became South Ossetia's first-ever president.

Most ethnic Georgians remaining in the region boycotted yesterday's poll, which Georgia has described as illegal.

South Ossetian authorities say the existence of a strong center of power in Tskhinvali should facilitate negotiations with Tbilisi.

Georgia has repeatedly accused Russia of supporting South Ossetia. In 1992, Moscow threatened to include the region in the Russian Federation, raising fears of a full-scale military campaign with Tbilisi.

Whether Kokoyev will emerge as South Ossetia's next president is still unclear, but the election of a Russian citizen as the head of the region could further damage relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Both countries are at odds over a number of issues. Georgia accuses Russia of supporting Abkhazia, another of its breakaway provinces. Moscow, in turn, alleges that Tbilisi is harboring armed Chechen rebels. Relations have worsened particularly since 1995, when Shevardnadze first hinted that Georgia would seek NATO membership.

A Russian-Georgian friendship pact signed in 1994 has never been ratified by the Russian parliament, and the two countries are currently negotiating a new draft treaty they say should help normalize relations. Yet, Russia's private television channel TV6 reported on 16 November that Moscow had unexpectedly called off a planned meeting to discuss the treaty's outlines.

The reason behind this decision remains unclear. But TV6 said Russia wanted to protest against Tbilisi's alleged refusal to hand over Chechen separatist leader Ruslan Gelayev, who is believed to be hiding in Georgia's remote Pankisi Gorge. Shevardnadze reiterated today that he is unaware of Gelayev's whereabouts.

Preliminary results of yesterday's presidential poll have prompted some criticism in South Ossetia itself.

Georgia's Prime News news agency quotes South Ossetian Prime Minister Dmitri Sanakoyev as slamming Kokoyev -- a former Komsomol (Communist Youth) municipal leader -- for having spent most of his time over the past few years in Moscow.

In an apparent attempt to downplay the political significance of yesterday's vote, Sanakoyev said it reflects South Ossetians' dissatisfaction with Chibirov's economic policies.

As for South Ossetia's former president, Chibirov expressed his dismay at Kokoyev's breakthrough.