Presidential Elections in South Ossetia – Plan B
Despite winning 57 per cent of the vote, South Ossetia’s Supreme Court annulled the results on the grounds of voter intimidation. The winning candidate, Alla Dzhioyeva who was not supported by Moscow, was barred from running in the repeat election scheduled for March 2012.
The second and last term of Eduard Kokoity, the de facto president of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia since 2001, has come to an end. In November, presidential elections were held in this “republic”, whose independence had been recognised by the Russian Federation. Eduard Kokoity wanted to stay in office himself for the third term although officially he denied such a sentiment. In June of this year, the matter was finally settled by the South Ossetian Supreme Court. The court ruled that a referendum of Ossetians on another term for Kokoity was unconstitutional. This verdict aside, his remaining in power was also opposed by the Kremlin, which was directly expressed Sergey Naryshkin, chief of the Russian Presidential Administration. Kokoity tried to promote the candidacy of one of his closest associates but he did not succeed.
Elections: round one
The first round of voting took place on November 13th with as many as eleven candidates running. The most serious contestant was Anatoly Bibilov, minister for emergencies, who received the support of Moscow. The first rumours that the Kremlin would support him appeared in August in the Russian Kommersant daily. Bibilov, just forty years old, was born in Tskhinvali and graduated from the Soviet Ryazan Airborne Military Command School. In 1994-1996 he was commander of a special task force in South Ossetia. Later he worked for a Kyiv-based company and served in the so-called “peace corps” in South Ossetia. Before the Georgian-Russian war in August 2008 he served as a deputy commander of the North Ossetian peace battalion in the conflict zone. In November of 2008 he was made emergencies minister and has stayed in this function until today.
His main opponent was meant to be Dzhambolat Tedeev, the coach of the Russian national wrestling team. Tedeev’s candidacy, however, was rejected by the election officials because he had not resided in Ossetia for ten years prior the election. Tedeev was in conflict with Kokoity and his people blaming them for the murder his brother Ibragim. He enjoyed a significant support of the inhabitants of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and therefore the decision of the central electoral committee led to protests and riots in the city. In the end, Bibilov’s main rival became former Education Minister Alla Dzhioyeva, a non-party candidate who received the Tedeev’s backing. The voting took place in 84 polling stations, located also in Moscow and the capital of Abkhazia, Sukhumi. There were no stations, however, in the autonomous republic of North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation and inhabited by seventeen thousand Ossetians from the South, who moved there after the Georgian-Russian war in 2008.
The election turnout of the first round was at 67 per cent. Kokoity officially supported Bibilov, but informal backing went also to Georgiy Kabisov, head of the State Committee for Information and Media Communication, and to Alan Kotaev, deputy chief of the Tskhinvali administration. But public support did not necessarily mean additional votes, because the outgoing president is a very unpopular politician. Bibilov’s campaign staff even claimed that Kokoity’s “support” was a kiss of death.
The first round ended in a draw, with Bibilov and Dzhioyeva getting almost the same number of votes (25.44 per cent to 25.37 per cent). After them were, Vadim Khsovrebov, director of state bakeries (9.88 per cent), Alan Kotaev (9.62 per cent). Dmitriy Tasoev, leader of the social-democratic party received 9.1 per cent and Georgiy Kabisov 7.53 per cent. Commenting on the results, Kokoity said that it was unimaginable for a woman to become president.
The first round of voting was accompanied by a referendum in which the Ossetians were to decide whether Russian should become the second official language of South Ossetia. Nearly 85 per cent of the voters supported the referendum.
Despite Kokoity’s dislike for Bibilov, Kokoity knew that his win would be his best interest. Dzhioyeva’s victory could mean that Kokoity would be held to account for his rule which may include investigations into the massive misappropriation of funds received in aid from Russia. It was known that financial fraud was the one of the main reasons behind the unwillingness of Moscow to prolong Kokoity’s rule.
The political future of Kokoity is the subject of intense speculation. There are rumours that the Kremlin intends to offer him a high post in one of the Russian regions but not in the Northern Caucasus; isolating him from any possibility to exert influence on South Ossetian matters. It is also possible that Kokoity will become the speaker of the Ossetian parliament. His assuming the position of the president of the ruling party Unity in August was to help him in this aim.
Before the run-off election, the Russians got involved in the electoral campaign of their favoured candidate. A meeting between the Russian president Dmitriy Medvedev and Bibilov took place on November 21st, in the capital of North Ossetia, Vladikavkaz. The office of the Russian president said in its announcement that Moscow was interested in an efficient leadership in South Ossetia and that it will continue its policy of safeguarding the security of this republic. In addition, Bibilov received the official support of Khsovrebov, who took third place in the first round.
In the run-off election, Dzhioyeva claimed 57 per cent of the votes while the support for Bibilov was at 40 per cent. Commenting on the unofficial results, Bibilov said that his campaign staff had been receiving completely different information about the results and that numerous irregularities had been recorded. He added that he would wait for the final results and accept the verdict of the Supreme Court. The President of the election commission, Bela Plieva, announced right after the polls closed that no serious irregularities had been reported. And the security services claimed that supporters of one of the candidates (Bibilov) had been planning street demonstrations.
Invalidating the results
Since the results were announced, the course of events has changed dramatically. Bibilov’s campaign submitted a claim to the Supreme Court of South Ossetia on the grounds of voter intimidation and bribery. Bibilov’s claim was upheld by the court which decided to annul the results of the presidential elections. The court further ruled that Dzhioyeva will not be able to run again in a repeat campaign. That same day, the Ossetian parliament chose a new date for a repeat election to March 25th 2012.
President Eduard Kokoity has welcomed both the court’s and the parliament’s decision appealing to the Ossetian people to remain calm and respect the laws of the constitution. However, Dzhioyeva has said that she will not allow the election to be stolen and will defend her victory and not exclude the possibility of street protests. She added that the Ossetians chose her for the highest office and that President Kokoity cannot reconcile this fact by calmly transferring power over to her. She said that the court’s decision is illegal and politically ordered.
The current political situation in the separatist South Ossetia is markedly tense. The worst case scenario, not very probable, is an eruption of riots, which would undoubtedly be welcome in Tbilisi. Moscow must now do all it can to prevent it. The Russian Federation, for the second time has been dealt such a defeat. Similar to the presidential election in Abkhazia in August, like in Ossetia, Russia supported a candidate which lost the election. This is an incredible failure for the Kremlin. Despite the fact that South Ossetia is completely financially dependent on Moscow, the voters chose a candidate who was not politically promoted by Moscow.
The events of South Ossetia have shown that Moscow and the outgoing President Kokoity have decided not to allow the power to be held outside their political circles. Russia and Kokoity see a Dzhioyeva presidency as creating unnecessary tensions between Moscow and Tskhinvali and too much independence for South Ossetia. Certainly, the current authorities and the Russian Federation will ensure that the March elections will be won by the “proper candidate”. Georgia will most certainly condemn the election results and the spectacle in Ossetia.
The presidential elections in South Ossetia will not have any serious effect on the overall situation in the South Caucasus, in Georgia, or on Georgian-Russian relations. At most, it may cause a short period of internal turbulence in this tiny breakaway region.
Wojciech Wojtasiewicz is a PhD student at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. He is a regular contributor to the Polish bimonthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia and author of the Polish Przegląd gruziński (Georgian Review) and Przegląd azerbejdżański (Azerbaijan Review).
Translated by Tomasz Bieroń