With most but not all ballots counted, parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov has formally claimed victory in the April 9 presidential election in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, which is recognized as an independent state only by Russia and three other countries.
According to the Central Election Commission's preliminary figures, Bibilov garnered 57.98 percent of the vote, incumbent Leonid Tibilov 30 percent, and KGB staffer Alan Gagloyev 11.1 percent. Voter turnout was over 80 percent of the estimated 33,000–40,000 voters. Final figures will be released later this week.
In a referendum held concurrently with the election, more than 80 percent of voters registered approval of appending to the region's official designation "Republic of South Ossetia" the formulation "the State of Alania." That initiative originated with Tibilov and was 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.
Bibilov's win is significant for several reasons. On a personal level, it compensates for his humiliating failed presidential bid in late 2011, when the Supreme Court annulled the results of a second-round runoff ballot between himself and Alla Dzhioyeva, who emerged the winner.
It also represents a victory over a rival whom he clearly resented and despised. Relations between Bibilov and Tibilov were so strained that on one occasion last year they engaged in a public shouting match in parliament.
The two men have been at odds for the past three years over whether, when, and on what terms South Ossetia should relinquish its hard-won quasi-independent status and be subsumed into the Russian Federation. Bibilov has lobbied obsessively since 2014 for holding at the earliest possible opportunity a referendum on South Ossetia's accession to Russia, his proposed current time frame being before the end of 2017.
Tibilov, whose bid for reelection Moscow openly supported, favored a more nuanced approach of gradual rapprochement with Russia, cognizant of the need to avoid compounding the international opprobrium Russia incurred by its annexation of Crimea.
Bibilov's election thus creates an uncomfortable dilemma for Russia, given the assurances President Vladimir Putin gave Tibilov that if the people of South Ossetia voted in a referendum to become part of Russia, their wishes would not be ignored. On the other hand, such assurances are not binding, and Russia has a most powerful lever with which to pressure Bibilov to postpone holding his planned referendum, given that South Ossetia is almost totally dependent on Russian financial aid. The threat of a reduction in that funding could induce him to soft-pedal and postpone the referendum for an indefinite period.
Congratulating Bibilov on his election as de facto president, Putin characterized relations between the two polities as "based on the principles of union relations and integration." He added that Russia "will continue to render all possible assistance to South Ossetia in resolving pressing problems of socioeconomic development, and also in ensuring national security."
Those formulations imply the Kremlin envisages South Ossetia remaining a separate geopolitical entity, at least for now. St. Petersburg-based pundit Igor Sopov was quoted by the daily Kommersant as predicting that the Kremlin will play for time in order to avoid accusations of illegally annexing South Ossetia in the run-up to the 2018 Russian presidential ballot.
Finally, Bibilov's win may reflect the influence of Tibilov's predecessor as president, Eduard Kokoity. Kokoity was denied registration as a presidential candidate on the grounds that he failed to meet the requirement (which he himself had been instrumental in introducing) that candidates must have lived in South Ossetia for at least nine months of the year for the 10 years prior to the ballot. Piqued by that rejection, Kokoity first demanded Tibilov's resignation, then on March 30 publicly called on his supporters to vote for Bibilov.
Whether Bibilov's victory was due to voters' espousal of the idea of becoming part of the Russian Federation (with all that implies in terms of security and economic benefits); to Kokoity's backing; to disenchantment and disappointment at Tibilov's failure to deliver more in the way of galvanizing the region's stagnating economy and creating jobs (South Ossetia's former ambassador to Moscow, Dmitry Medoyev, told the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Tibilov fulfilled just 10 percent of his 2012 election campaign promises); to Bibilov's vilification of Tibilov as corrupt; or to a combination of all those factors, is not clear.
Nor is it clear whether, as Russian analyst Vladimir Novikov has surmised, Kokoity may have extracted from Bibilov the promise of a senior government post (prime minister or defense minister) in return for his support -- even though Kokoity publicly pays lip service to the cause of preserving South Ossetia's status as a sovereign entity.
Whatever the reasons, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported jubilation on April 10 on the streets of Tskhinvali, the regional capital. In his first public statement, Bibilov pledged to do what he can to justify voters' faith in him, affirming that "I realize that tomorrow things should start getting better."