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Can South Ossetia's Kokoity Make A Comeback?

Ex-President Eduard Kokoity is against South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation, unlike the top two contenders in the presidential race.
Ex-President Eduard Kokoity is against South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation, unlike the top two contenders in the presidential race.

Eduard Kokoity, who served from 2001-11 as de facto president of Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, reportedly plans to run in the presidential election due in April 2017.

Whether Kokoity will succeed in registering as a candidate is questionable, however: since the end of his presidential term he has lived in Moscow, but an amendment he insisted on having written into the region's election law stipulates that presidential candidates must have spent at least nine months of each of the 10 years prior to an election living in South Ossetia.

Rumors that Kokoity was planning a political comeback surfaced in the summer of 2014, and by February 2016, according to RFE/RL's Ekho Kavkaza, his supporters were already speaking of his return to the political arena as a done deed.

Then in early November, Interfax quoted an unnamed source as claiming that Kokoity planned to run next year for the post of president. Kokoity himself declined, however, either to confirm or deny that report. But his close associate Tair Gagloyev subsequently quoted Kokoity as telling a gathering of the People's Party that "I shall not support any of the presumed candidates, I shall run myself."

At present, the election looks set to be a bitterly fought competition between incumbent Leonid Tibilov and parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov, whose One Ossetia party holds 20 of the 34 seats in parliament. The two men are at odds over the optimum approach to engineering the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation, which recognized it as a sovereign state in August 2008 after the Russian military quashed an attempt by Georgia to restore its control over South Ossetia by force.

In early 2014, Bibilov called for a referendum on "unification" with Russia. International outrage at Moscow's annexation of Crimea soon afterward effectively rendered that option unworkable, however.

Tibilov for his part took a more geopolitically nuanced approach, suggesting in April 2016 holding a referendum within the next few months on amending the region's constitution to empower the president to propose to the Russian leadership South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation, thereby "sparing Russia the political risk" inherent in making the first move.

Bibilov immediately objected to that proposal, arguing that if a referendum took place, the sole question put to voters should be whether or not South Ossetia should become part of Russia. Following a parliament session that degenerated into a shouting match between the two, Tibilov and Bibilov issued a joint statement in late May that the planned referendum should take place only after the presidential ballot next spring.

By contrast, Kokoity is against South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation: he told Interfax that "the president of South Ossetia should be a person who will strengthen the country's independence and expand the strategic partnership with Russia."

Kremlin 'Not Interested'

The Russian leadership, however, appears to favor keeping open the option of a referendum in support of South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation. That would explain why, according to analyst Nikolai Silayev, who referred to a report prepared by a think tank close to Russian President Vladimir Putin's former aide Vladislav Surkov, who retains responsibility for relations with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow has no interest in a Kokoity comeback.

The news portal Caucasian Knot similarly quoted a source in Tibilov's administration as saying that "Moscow has made it very clear that it will not support Kokoity."

Silayev further suggests that Kokoity's intention is not to get elected himself, but in the event he is denied registration to mobilize his supporters and pressure both the South Ossetian authorities and Moscow with the aim of securing specific concessions or privileges.

Opinions differ over Kokoity's chances of victory in the unlikely event that he manages to register as a presidential candidate. His supporters stress his "charisma," and some South Ossetians still praise his role in securing the region's international recognition. On the other hand, people also recall the brutality of, and human rights violations committed by Kokoity's henchmen; his concentration of executive, legislative, and judicial power in his own hands; and the embezzlement of millions of rubles Moscow made available in 2008-11 for reconstruction of homes and infrastructure destroyed during the August 2008 war.

To date, no other potential presidential candidates have declared themselves. Alan Alborov, mayor of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, has made clear that he will not run, but will back Tibilov's candidacy instead.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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