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South Ossetian Leader Explores Options For Remaining In Power

De facto South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity (walking toward camera) at a meeting with economic-security staff in Tskhinvali (undated)
De facto South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity (walking toward camera) at a meeting with economic-security staff in Tskhinvali (undated)
Eduard Kokoity's second term as de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia expires in November. Article 48 of the republic's constitution bars him from seeking a third term, and Kokoity himself has gone on record more than once as saying he has no intention of doing so, although he will not quit politics completely.

But two proposals have been floated over the past month to enable Kokoity to continue serving as president after the expiry of his second term: a referendum on amending the constitution to remove the two-term limit, or alternatively postponing the presidential election to an unspecified later date.

The prospect that Kokoity may remain in power after November has impelled the republic's opposition parties and individual political figures to close ranks and align in a National Front, the stated aims of which are to prevent Kokoity running for a third term and to ensure that the next presidential election is free and fair. How they intend to do so is as yet unclear, however. And since many potential opposition presidential candidates, fearing for their personal safety, have left South Ossetia for Moscow or Vladikavkaz, capital of the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia, they may find themselves barred from participating in light of an amendment enacted in April to the election law that requires candidates to have been resident in South Ossetia for the 10 years prior to the ballot.

Born in 1964 in Tskhinvali, Kokoity is a former member of the USSR wrestling team who made a career within the Komsomol (Union of Young Communists) before setting up in business in Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He returned to South Ossetia in 2001 and was elected de facto president in the fall of that year, reportedly with the support of the powerful Tedeyev clan. He was reelected for a second term in November 2006 with 96 percent of the vote in a ballot some believe was rigged, and that was not internationally recognized as legal and valid.

Since then, he has fallen out with and fired several senior government officials whose loyalty he considered suspect. Some of them have aligned with the mostly Moscow-based opposition, which has branded the Kokoity regime "the worst sort of tyranny" and "a bunch of criminals."

The idea of holding a republic-wide referendum on amending the South Ossetian constitution to abolish the two-term limit was floated on May 4 by de facto Deputy Defense Minister Major General Ibragim Gasseyev. At that juncture, Gasseyev had reportedly already established a 38-person initiative group to collect the minimum 1,000 signatures required to submit the referendum proposal to the unrecognized republic's Central Election Commission.

Some 2,000 signatures had already been collected by May 13. But only 1,284 were appended to the formal request submitted to the republic's Central Election Commission. The commission examined random samples, failed to find a single violation, and submitted the referendum request to Kokoity, who must pass it to the Supreme Court, according to commission chairwoman Bella Pliyeva. The Supreme Court in turn must then decide whether the request and supporting documentation meet the requirements of the relevant republican law.

Gasseyev's stated rationale for removing the legal obstacle to reelecting Kokoity for a third presidential term was the need to counter "dirty political games" aimed at "undermining political and economic stability." Gasseyev argued that it was Kokoity who "led the republic to victory," secured its recognition as an independent state (albeit only by the Russian Federation and a handful of other countries), and launched postwar reconstruction, "and we must continue on that path."

Kokoity himself was similarly quoted by the website on May 5 as having told Interfax in an interview (which has since apparently been removed from the website that the referendum proposal "is the response of the people [of South Ossetia] to attempts by destructive forces to destabilize the situation in the republic by means of provocations and manipulation."

Neither Gasseyev nor Kokoity identified the "destructive forces" in question. But quoted Vyacheslav Sedov, head of the South Ossetian presidential and governmental press service, as saying that the "provocations" to which Kokoity referred included a visit to Tskhinvali in late April by three of his Moscow-based critics and political rivals that ended in a standoff with police. One of the three was Djambolat Tedeyev, trainer of Russia's free-style wresting team and a former Kokoity crony, who according to the Russian daily "Kommersant" plans to run in the November presidential ballot. has identified Tedeyev as the Russian leadership's preferred choice of successor to Kokoity, followed by Teymuraz Bolloyev, former owner of the Baltika brewery, who resigned in January as head of the construction company Olimpstroy shortly before his 58th birthday, purportedly on grounds of ill health.

There are at least two reasons why the Kremlin is unlikely to look favorably on Kokoity's efforts to circumvent or remove the constitutional ban on serving three consecutive presidential terms. First, Vladimir Putin set an example by relinquishing the presidency of the Russian Federation in 2008, even if he hand-picked Dmitry Medvedev as his successor. The heads of Russian client states are presumably required to follow Putin's example, rather than those of Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev, both of whom have had the constitutions of their respective countries amended to enable them to remain in power.

Second, Kokoity is embroiled in an acrimonious standoff with Vadim Brovtsev, the Russian businessman from Siberia appointed South Ossetian prime minister in August 2009 with a brief to expedite reconstruction of infrastructure damaged or destroyed during the August 2008 war and limit embezzlement of the subsidies (totaling $1.2 billion over the past three years) Moscow has provided for that purpose. Over the past year, Kokoity and other senior South Ossetian officials have repeatedly criticized Brovtsev for alleged incompetence, favoritism, and corruption and claimed that he and Russian officials he brought with him have themselves pilfered aid money. The Russian government nonetheless still clearly regards Brovtsev as an indispensible check and counterweight to Kokoity and his entourage.

To date, no senior Russian official has commented publicly on the referendum initiative, although it is not clear what messages are being sent behind the scenes, or what kind of pressure would be required to induce Kokoity to abandon the idea of engineering a third term for himself.

Artur Tadtayev, the head of the initiative group Gasseyev formed to drum up support for the planned referendum, has gone on record as confidently predicting that "the people will give the green light and Kokoity will stay on for a third term." That is questionable, however, in light of widespread popular dissatisfaction at the slow pace of reconstruction. In mid-April, the opposition coordinated a protest in Tskhinvali by families who have been living in tents or farm buildings since their homes were destroyed in the August 2008 bombardment to demand decent permanent accommodation.

In addition, the referendum proposal has already elicited criticism from three South Ossetian political parties.

On May 17, the Communist Party released a statement recalling Kokoity's repeated pledges to step down after serving two terms and warned that violating the constitution "could lead to an undesirable confrontation within society."

The Communists further made the point that holding a referendum would entail considerable expenditure at a time when a large number of homes, public buildings and highways damaged during the war have still not been repaired. Finally, the statement pointed out, the referendum would militate against formal recognition of South Ossetia as an independent state by any more countries, as it would call into question the republic's leaders' commitment to democracy.

The Communist Party is one of just three represented in the parliament elected in May 2009, with eight of the 34 seats; its leader, Stanislav Kochiyev, ran unsuccessfully against Kokoity in the 2001 presidential election and is currently parliament speaker.

The opposition People's Party that was summarily disbarred from participating in the May 2009 parliamentary elections has likewise expressed concern at the likely repercussions of the planned referendum. In a statement dated May 18, it too predicted that by clinging to power, Kokoity would demolish any chance that any more countries might recognize South Ossetia as an independent state. The party further pointed out that the constitutional law on referendums does not list among issues that can be put to a referendum prolonging the powers of the president.

The independent Social Democratic Party created last fall claims for its part the Central Election Commission violated the constitutional law on referendums by registering Gasseyev's initiative group, given that only the parliament is empowered to prolong the president's term in office.

The South Ossetian Supreme Court revoked the Social Democratic Party's registration last week on the grounds that it no longer has the minimum required number of members.

If the referendum does take place, it can be assumed that the Central Election Commission will announce that a majority voted in favor of lifting the two-term limit, regardless of how many actually did so.

The outcome of the actual election is, however, less easy to predict. Possible challengers to Kokoity currently resident in Tskhinvali include Communist Party leader Kochiyev (assuming he has fully recovered from a heart attack he suffered in February), Vyacheslav Gobozov, head of the extraparliamentary opposition party Fydybasta (Fatherland); and senior Justice Ministry official Sergei Bitiyev. Djambolat Tedeyev confirmed on May 27 that he would accept if nominated as the united opposition candidate.

If Kokoity is indeed constrained to abandon his bid for a third term, other members of his team may register as candidates, including Dmitry Medoev, South Ossetia's diplomatic representative in Moscow; Prosecutor General Taymuraz Khugayev (whose sister is married to Kokoity's brother Robert); and parliamentarian Vadim Tskhovrebov.

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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