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South Ossetian Supreme Court Nixes Proposed Referendum On Third Presidential Term

Eduard Kokoity maintains that he has no intention of serving a third term.
Eduard Kokoity maintains that he has no intention of serving a third term.
The campaign launched last month to enable Eduard Kokoity, de facto president of Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia, to serve a third consecutive presidential term has suffered two setbacks within two days.

The republic's Supreme Court ruled on June 14 that holding a referendum on abolishing the restriction on one person serving more than two consecutive presidential terms is unconstitutional. At the same time, the court noted that the parliament is empowered to amend the republic's constitution to abolish the two-term limit.

Members of the initiative group that collected signatures in support of the referendum forced their way into the parliament chamber on June 15 and sought to pressure lawmakers to enact immediately the necessary changes to the constitution to allow Kokoity to run for a third term when his second term expires in November. That attempt met with a resolute rebuff from parliament speaker and Communist Party chairman Stanislav Kochiyev.
The referendum initiative was launched in early May by Deputy Defense Minister Ibragim Gasseyev. His rationale was that Kokoity played a key role in rebuffing the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali in August 2008 (according to former Security Council Secretary Anatolii Barankevich, that claim is more than debatable and in securing South Ossetia's subsequent recognition by the Russian Federation as an independent state.

Kokoity himself, however, has said repeatedly, most recently on June 13, that he has no intention of serving a third term. But he has also said he will not quit politics altogether, raising the question whether he might assume the post of prime minister and/or again seek the presidency when his successor's first term expires.

South Ossetia's Communist Party issued a statement in mid-May condemning the proposed referendum and warning that violating the constitution "could lead to an undesirable confrontation" and would call into question the republican leadership's commitment to democracy.

Gasseyev's initiative group nonetheless continued to campaign aggressively for the referendum. On June 14, the day the Supreme Court was scheduled to meet to pronounce on the initiative, the group drove in a 15-car motorcade through the center of Tskhinvali, prominently displaying the state flags of Russia and South Ossetia. The vehicles then parked outside the Supreme Court building to await the court's judgment.

Details of the June 15 altercation in parliament are sketchy and contradictory. Kavkaz-uzel reported that armed members of the military and security services forced their way into the parliament chamber; Kochiyev said he invited three members of the group to address the session, but 15 forced their way in. He did not say whether they were armed. The daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" quotes parliament deputy speaker Yury Dzitstsoity as saying a total of 200 military personnel converged on the parliament building, and that the group that forced its way into the parliament chamber included deputy defense ministers Gasseyev and Igor Alborov.

According to Dzitstsoity, the intruders demanded that the parliament amend the relevant article of the constitution immediately. When told (apparently by Kochiyev) that is not feasible, and that they would have to submit to the parliament a written request that would be considered first by individual parliament committees then at a full parliament session, they reportedly protested that "we're under time pressure; we can't wait that long." They then sought to pressure individual parliamentarians to append their signatures to a request to amend the constitution. Twelve parliamentarians reportedly signed under pressure, but three others, including Dzitstsoity, demonstratively surrendered their mandates in protest.

Kochiyev told a press conference later on June 15 that it is not possible to make "fundamental changes" to the constitution just four or five months prior to an election, but he did not explain why. (The republic's constitution does not shed any light on this.)

Kochiyev also stressed that members of the military and "force" agencies do not have the right to engage in political activities, including the referendum initiative.

South Ossetia's Defense Minister, Valery Yakhnovets, denied on June 16 that any army personnel were among the group that pressured parliamentarians on June 15, saying he has asked Prosecutor-General Taymuraz Khugayev to investigate the parliament standoff and prepare a report within three days.

Stressing that "we live in a democratic society and any political initiatives should be conducted in strict accordance with the law," Kokoity reiterated that he has no intention of seeking a third term.

Some analysts believe that Kokoity is grooming Khugayev (whose sister is married to Kokoity's brother Robert) as his successor.

It is not clear whether the military and siloviki spearheading the campaign for Kokoity to stay on as de facto president specifically oppose Khugayev's advent to power, or whether they fear Russia might try to engineer the election of one of the prominent South Ossetian oppositionists who have left the republic in recent years, fearing for their personal safety.

A third possibility is that the entire campaign is intended to serve two purposes: to highlight Kokoity's apparent commitment to democracy, and to trigger at some point between now and November a controlled standoff serious enough that it would warrant imposing a state of emergency under which the presidential ballot could be postponed indefinitely.

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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