Soslan Khugayev, a leading member of would-be opposition presidential candidate Albert Dzhussoyev's Forward, Ossetia! party, was shot dead in Vladikavkaz, the capital of neighboring North Ossetia late on October 14, just two days after the South Ossetian Central Election Commission (TsIK) rejected Dzhussoyev's application to register for the ballot.
At one level, the cold-blooded and professional murder of Khugayev -- he was shot five times in the back and then, for good measure, once in the head -- could be construed as a warning to Dzhussoyev not to appeal his rejection as a candidate to South Ossetia's Supreme Court. (His supporters have since done so.)
But the killing also serves to underscore that the vote is not simply about electing a successor to outgoing de facto President Eduard Kokoity, who is barred by the republic's constitution from serving a third consecutive term, but about whether and on what terms South Ossetia can preserve its quasi-independent status. The Russian Federation recognized the breakaway Georgian region as an independent state in the wake of the disastrous Georgian military incursion in August 2008; four other UN member states have since followed suit.
A recent analysis posted on the opposition website uasamonga.ru suggests the election campaign has now become a three-way battle between Kokoity and his close associates, who are determined to retain control of the breakaway region; the Kremlin and its preferred choice of successor to Kokoity, South Ossetian Minister for Emergency Situations Anatoly Bibilov; and the South Ossetian opposition.
Both Kokoity and the opposition seek to strike a pragmatic but delicate balance, preserving and securing broader recognition of South Ossetia's self-proclaimed independence while maintaining close ties with Russia, its sole protector against the perceived ever-present threat of new Georgian aggression, and profiting from Russian financial support.
Moscow, by contrast, is suspected, especially since the announcement last month that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin plans to succeed Dmitry Medvedev as president in 2012, of looking for ways to incorporate South Ossetia into the Russian Federation by merging it with the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. Asked during a recent interview whether he thought South Ossetia should become part of the Russian Federation, Bibilov said that as a citizen, his answer was "yes," but as a politician, he thought differently.
Of the 30 candidates who announced their intention of participating in the election, the TsIK has registered 17, most of them members of the present government, and rejected 11, including Dzhussoyev, opposition party leaders Roland Kelekhsayev (People's Party) and Vyacheslav Gobozov ("Fydybasta," or Fatherland), and Russian free-style wrestling team coach Dzhambolat Tedeyev. Two applications are outstanding.
The stated rationale for not registering Tedeyev, Dzhussoyev, Kelekhsayev, and Gobozov was the April amendment to the republic's constitution requiring that presidential candidates should have lived in South Ossetia for the 10 years prior to the vote. All four left South Ossetia after falling out with Kokoity, whose authoritarian leadership style Tedeyev recently described to the Russian daily "Kommersant" as "medieval," but have returned in recent weeks to register as presidential candidates.
Dozens of Tedeyev's supporters were arrested following a standoff with police last month, but later released. Tedeyev was deported from South Ossetia to Russia on October 13, 24 hours after the South Ossetian Supreme Court upheld the TsIK's refusal to register him as a presidential candidate.
What Will Kokoity Do?
The large number of registered candidates is presumably intended to create the illusion that the ballot is free and democratic, even though all those opposition figures who genuinely enjoy some measure of popular support have been barred from the race. But the plethora of pro-regime candidates may serve another purpose.
Many Russian observers believe Kokoity initially planned to install as his successor South Ossetia's unpopular Prosecutor-General Taymuraz Khugayev (no relation to Soslan), whose sister is married to Kokoity's brother, and that he only agreed to Bibilov's candidacy under pressure from Moscow. On September 2, Kokoity said he supported both candidacies, but he then formally proposed Bibilov, whom the ruling Unity party unanimously endorsed.
Uasamonga.ru suggests that if Kokoity has belatedly woken up to the prospect of being shunted into political obscurity in the event that South Ossetia is merged with North Ossetia within the Russian Federation, he may now be trying to thwart a Bibilov election victory by ensuring the maximum number of his trusted associates also participate. Registered candidates who fall into that category reportedly include State Committee for Information and the Media Chairman Giorgi Kibisov, Tskhinvali First Deputy Mayor Alan Kotayev, and Vadim Tskhovrebov, director of the state-run bakery network.
If the vote is divided between 10 or more candidates and if, as uasamonga.ru claims, Bibilov enjoys no more than 2.5 percent popular support, the chances of a pro-Kokoity candidate winning either outright or in a runoff are that much greater. If, on the other hand, Bibilov wins against all odds, Kokoity as Unity party chairman may act as spoiler by having himself elected parliament speaker, and then having parliament amend the constitution to curtail the powers of the de facto president. Communist Party of South Ossetia head Stanislav Kochiyev was unceremoniously removed as parliament speaker last week, a move that reportedly compounded popular discontent.
Meanwhile, the situation remains tense and volatile, despite pleas for calm from Fatherland leader Gobozov and from South Ossetia's representative in Moscow, Dmitry Medoyev, both of whom warned of the risk of "foreign intervention."
Last week, some 100 former members of Chechnya's infamous, now-disbanded Vostok Battalion that was part of the Russian force deployed in August 2008 to crush the Georgian attempt to regain control of the region, addressed an open letter to President Medvedev urging him to intervene to end the "oppression" of the South Ossetian population by the republic's leaders, and warning that the region "is on the verge of civil war."
Whether that appeal was orchestrated on Tedeyev's behalf by his close associate, former South Ossetian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Anatoly Barankevich, who coordinated the defense of Tskhinvali, is not clear.