It is becoming increasingly difficult to say whether the presidential election campaign in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia is a geopolitical thriller, a soap opera with a cast dominated by former wrestling champions, a farce -- or a combination of all three.
The republic's Central Election Commission (TsIK) has registered a total of 17 candidates from three separate camps with conflicting political agendas for the November 13 ballot.
Incumbent de facto President Eduard Kokoity (a former member of the Soviet wrestling team) is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.
Kokoity is therefore seeking to engineer the election of a trusted member of his entourage as his successor, who will preserve South Ossetia's quasi-independent status with a view to future membership of the Union State of Russia and Belarus
The Russian Federation recognized South Ossetia's independence in the wake of the disastrous Georgian military incursion in August 2008; four other UN member states have since followed suit.
Russia Backs A Change Of Guard
The embattled South Ossetian opposition likewise seeks to preserve the region's hard-won independence. But it also plans to replace Kokoity's leadership team, who are perceived as authoritarian, inept, and corrupt.
Moscow is backing South Ossetian Minister of Emergency Situations Anatoly Bibilov. It is assumed that he will work for the eventual merger of South and North Ossetia within the Russian Federation.
The Russian authorities do not want Kokoity's clique to remain in power, suspecting them of having creamed off much of the millions of rubles channeled to South Ossetia from the federal budget over the past three years to finance the reconstruction of infrastructure damaged or destroyed during the war.
Cracking down on corruption features high on Bibilov's election campaign program. "Russia does not want South Ossetia to become a black hole,'" he told a press conference on October 31.
In recent developments, a popular opposition politician who was refused registration as a candidate has complained to the TsIK that a rival candidate believed to represent the Kokoity camp was registered illegally.
Meanwhile, five opposition candidates have joined forces, possibly with a view to four of them pulling out and calling on their supporters to vote for the fifth.
Oppositionist Dzhambolat Tedeyev, the trainer of Russia's free-style wrestling team, was denied registration as a presidential candidate last month on the grounds that he had not been permanently resident in South Ossetia for the past 10 years.
The Republic of South Ossetia's constitution was amended in April to include the 10-year residency requirement.
The TsIK cited this amendment as the rationale for not registering Tedeyev
and several other would-be presidential candidates who fled South Ossetia in recent years in the face of pressure and open threats from Kokoity and his entourage.
Tedeyev claimed last week that State Committee for Information and the Media Chairman Georgy Kabisov, whom some observers believe is Kokoity's preferred successor, is not eligible to participate in the ballot as he has not lived permanently in the breakaway region for the past 10 years.
In a formal statement submitted to the TsIK, Tedeyev said that from 2002 to 2004 Kabisov lived in Vladikavkaz, the capital of neighboring North Ossetia, where he worked in a bank.
Tedeyev appended to his complaint a copy of bank documentation
that appears to confirm this claim.
Neither Kabisov nor the TsIK has commented on Tedeyev's allegation. Kabisov is believed to have been behind the concerted media campaign last year criticizing South Ossetian Prime Minister
Vadim Brovtsev (a Russian from Siberia) and his cabinet as inefficient and corrupt.
There is some doubt, however, as to whether Kabisov or Tskhinvali's First Deputy Mayor Alan Kotayev is Kokoity's preferred successor.
Kabisov's election manifesto
defines securing the recognition of South Ossetia as an independent state by the international community as his primary foreign policy objective, but he adds that "in the future I would like to see Ossetia united within the Russian Federation."
Kotayev for his part
defines "strategic cooperation with the Russian Federation" as "an interim stage" on the path to accession to the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
Both the opposition and Bibilov have publicly expressed fears the election will be rigged to ensure that a candidate representing the present leadership wins.
Solidarity Among Opposition
On October 23, five opposition candidates -- Alla Dzhioyeva, Alan Kochiyev, Merab Chigoyev, Vladimir Kelekhsayev, and Dzhemal Dzhigkayev -- issued a statement
affirming mutual support and solidarity and announcing plans to work together to prevent any electoral fraud.
In a subsequent statement
days later, the five announced their intention of jointly backing a single candidate, presumably meaning that four of them would pull out of the race and appeal to their supporters to vote for the fifth.
Two other candidates, Alan Pliyev and Ayvar Bestayev, also appended their signatures to that statement.
The most likely single opposition candidate is Dzhioyeva, a former education minister dismissed in 2008 and brought to trial on embezzlement charges, which the opposition says were politically motivated.
In a video appeal dated November 1 posted on www.uasamonga.ru
, Tedeyev expressed his backing for Dzhioyeva and called on his supporters to vote for her.
Former South Ossetian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Anatoly Barankevich, who coordinated the defense of Tskhinvali in 2008, is also backing
Meanwhile, Bibilov has issued a formal appeal to rival candidates, the TsIK, and the republic's population to ensure that the vote is free and fair.
He noted that no population census has been conducted in South Ossetia since 1989 (the last all-union census of the USSR), and consequently estimates of the number of voters vary wildly, from 12,000 to 37,000.
The TsIK, however, is rumored to have authorized the printing of 45,000 ballot papers. Bibilov challenged the TsIK to clarify the precise number of eligible voters.
He also proposed numbering ballot papers
and making public which blocks of voting papers would be used in which electoral districts.