On April 9, an estimated 33,000-40,000 voters will go to the polls to elect the next de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, which is recognized as an independent state only by Russia and three other countries.
The vote marks the culmination of an acrimonious three-year standoff between incumbent President Leonid Tibilov, who is seeking a second term, and parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov. The two have long espoused different approaches to the time frame for possible incorporation of the region into the Russian Federation.
Tibilov, 65, a former KGB head, is widely believed to enjoy the backing of Moscow, which effectively bankrolls the region. Russia has channeled billions of rubles into rebuilding infrastructure destroyed during its brief August 2008 war with Georgia. Between 2008 and 2011, much of that money was embezzled, allegedly with the connivance of then-regional leader Eduard Kokoity.
Of the nine potential candidates who declared their intention of registering for the ballot, only three finally succeeded in doing so, the third being KGB officer Alan Gagloyev. Gagloyev, 37, has been alleged to have ulterior motives in seeking office, such as furthering his own business interests.
Construction-company owner Amiran Bagayev and Alan Kozonov, a doctor and member of the minority Unity of the People parliament faction, reportedly failed to submit the required number of signatures in their support.
Kokoity, too, was refused registration as a candidate, on the grounds that he failed to meet the requirement -- which he himself had insisted on imposing -- that candidates must have been resident in South Ossetia for at least nine months of each of the 10 years preceding the ballot.
Kokoity mobilized his supporters to protest that ruling, insisting that the Interior Ministry had deliberately falsified his residency records, but the Supreme Court upheld it, whereupon Kokoity accused Tibilov of falsifying his property declaration and demanded he step down.
Tibilov condemned those protests as a deliberate bid to destabilize the situation and force a postponement of the vote. In a public address on March 30 he appealed to Kokoity, recalling his earlier "services to our people," to channel his energies into "the development of our independent state." Kokoity, however, publicly urged his supporters the same day to vote for Bibilov.
On Joining Russia
The primary bone of contention between Tibilov and Bibilov is whether, when, and how South Ossetia should become part of Russia. Even before the May 2014 parliamentary elections in which it garnered 20 of the 34 mandates, the One Ossetia party of which Bibilov is chairman had called for holding a referendum on the unification within the Russian Federation of South Ossetia and the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania on which it borders. Bibilov has lobbied single-mindedly for such a referendum ever since.
Tibilov, however, although paying lip service to the prospect of eventual unification of the divided Ossetian people, has repeatedly warned of the inevitable negative reaction by the international community should Russia seek to incorporate another disputed territory in the wake of its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Instead, he advocates the dual policy of seeking to strengthen South Ossetia's quasi-independent status while pursuing greater rapprochement with Russia.
That disagreement came to a head in May 2016 when, after a shouting match in parliament, the two men agreed to postpone holding a referendum on the issue until after the 2017 presidential ballot.
During the election campaign, Bibilov has switched to questioning and disparaging Tibilov's claims of having presided over a more effective campaign of reconstruction development than was achieved under Kokoity. In an interview with Kavpolit.com, Bibilov implicitly accused Tibilov of tolerating corruption and cronyism, obstructing judicial reform, and indifference to the problems of the population at large. He alleged that "the corrupt clan system" that he claims has taken root in South Ossetia constitutes the sole obstacle to the unification of South and North Ossetia.
Tibilov's backers retaliated by pointing to major contradictions between Bibilov's statements as parliament speaker and his election campaign rhetoric, while Tibilov himself made the point that in the three years since his rival's party won the parliamentary elections, the legislature has not adopted a single anticorruption law.
Then, in late March, Bibilov thwarted the broadcast of a televised debate between candidates by rejecting the seat in the studio allocated to him.
Tibilov apparently underestimated support for Bibilov even before Kokoity came out in his support. In February and early March, it was reported that budget-sector employees were being pressured to attend a meeting in support of Tibilov's reelection. The state-controlled media have published a series of Soviet-style panegyrics by public figures extolling Tibilov.
In late March, when Tibilov visited the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz, where many of the estimated 10,000 citizens of South Ossetia who fled during or since the fighting of August 2008 still live, Republic of North Ossetia head Vyacheslav Bitarov called on them to vote for Tibilov. It may have been in response to that appeal that Bibilov's campaign staff have arranged to deploy 100 election observers at each of the two polling stations in Vladikavkaz to thwart anticipated multiple voting using fake passports.
Bella Pliyeva, who chairs South Ossetia's Central Election Commission, on April 6 categorically excluded the possibility of falsification at polling stations in North Ossetia, the state news agency RES reported.
An opinion poll in mid-March quoted by Kavpolit.com registered 24 percent support for Tibiliov, 15 percent for Bibilov, and just 4 percent for Gagloyev, with over 50 percent of respondents as yet undecided whom to vote for.
Russian experts predict that neither will garner the minimum 50 percent of the vote needed for an outright first-round win, and will face off in a runoff vote.
Concurrently with the presidential vote, the South Ossetian electorate will also be required to participate in a referendum on whether the official designation of the Republic of South Ossetia should be modified by adding the wording State of Alania.
That initiative originated with Tibilov, and is intended to serve two purposes. First, to underscore the strong ethnic and historic ties between the region and the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. And second, to counter rival claims from representatives of other North Caucasus republics (primarily the Ingush and the Balkars) to be the location of the kingdom ruled by, and/or direct descendants of, the medieval Alans. According to an opinion poll quoted last week by the state news agency RES, 83 percent of respondents intend to vote in the election and 66 percent will approve the proposed new name for the region.
The Georgian leadership has denounced both the presidential ballot and the referendum as illegal, and the referendum as a Russian-orchestrated provocation.