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Analysis & Opinion
15.11.11 Occupy Tskhinvali
By Andrew Roth

Two candidates are in a tight race for the coveted title of president of South Ossetia, the Georgian breakaway republic with a 70,000-plus population recognized by only five countries in the world. Voters on Saturday launched what observers have called a “protest vote,” opting by a small margin for the opposition candidate in lieu of Moscow’s preferred choice. Yet experts and local press disagree about just how united Moscow’s bureaucrats really are behind the establishment candidate, and how much pressure Russia is putting on the South Ossetian government to pick the right man in the coming run-off elections.

With 98 percent of the votes tallied, South Ossetian Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov and former Education Minister Alla Dzhioyeva, a dark horse candidate in the elections, ended up in a dead heat, with each winning close to 25 percent of this weekend’s vote. With the remaining competition polling at less than ten percent each, the two frontrunners will compete in a run-off election on November 28.

The presidential vote was the first held in South Ossetia since the headstrong republic declared its independence from Georgia in 2008. While Abkhazia, the other breakaway republic that declared independence during the short Georgian war of 2008, was blessed with solid leadership under Sergei Bagapsh, local South Ossetian strongman Eduard Kokoity’s reign has increasingly been regarded as both inept and corrupt since he became president in 2001. South Ossetia’s tiny landlocked population has subsisted independently thanks to a regular supply of cash from Moscow, which Kokoity and his allies have allegedly siphoned off for themselves.

Barred from a third term by the territory’s Constitution (and some nudging from Moscow), Kokoity will now step aside for his successor. Popular opinion in South Ossetia holds that Bibilov is Moscow’s man, destined to preserve Russia’s influence on the territory. While the Bibilov campaign has denied this, Kommersant reported one scandal where a telegram purportedly sent by Vladimir Putin was delivered to Bibilov’s campaign supporters. While the telegram’s authenticity is questioned, the tone for the elections was set: a vote against Bibilov was one against the establishment candidate.

The groundswell of support for Dzhioyeva was tightly linked to discontent in the republic, in particular with local authorities. Kokoity publicly declared support for Bibilov (probably to the candidate’s detriment, given Kokoity’s dismal popularity in South Ossetia), while respected local politicians, including ex-Minister of Defense Anatoly Barankevich and head trainer of the Russian freestyle wrestling squad Dzambolat Tedeev, who was denied egistration for the elections, declared their support for Dzhioyeva.

Dzhioyeva’s success at the polls is especially noteworthy considering the limited role of female politicians in the Caucasus, which her supporters addressed head-on. Tedeyev, who commands public support as a popular opposition figure in South Ossetia, called Dzhioyeva the “only real man” in a field composed entirely of male candidates. Yet the unfortunate truth that Dzhioyeva is, in fact, a woman, continues resurfacing: "Our society has high respect for women,” said Kokoity on Komsomolskaya Pravda radio, predicting a Babilov win in the second round of voting. “But the Caucasus remains the Caucasus," he concluded, reported the Moscow Times.

The vote did not pass without controversy. Besides Tedeyev’s controversial disbarment from the elections on a technicality, there were claims of vote rigging from other candidates as well. Yet beyond the crooked nuts and bolts of the election process, some experts argued that rival cliques of Kremlin insiders were backing the two leading candidates in an electoral proxy war. “What the elections there show is that a final decision hasn’t been made in Moscow,” said Alexey Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “Different cliques in Moscow have selected different people, and this resulted in people getting the chance to express themselves there [in South Ossetia].”

Several Russian dailies, including Kommersant, went one step further and said that Kremlin elites were using the South Ossetian elections as an occasion to settle personal scores with one another. In particular, they named a rivalry between the Deputy Head of the Directorate for Interregional Relations and Cultural Contacts in the Russian Presidential Administration, Vladislav Gasumyanov, and a former head of the same department, Modest Kolerov. The two were backing rival candidates: Gasumyanov supported Bibilov, while Kolerov, a political advisor who now runs the Regnum news agency, supported Georgy Kabisov.

Vadim Mukhanov, a senior researcher at the Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow, disagreed, saying that the main fault lines among bureaucrats were grounded in geography – allegiances to Moscow or South Ossetia – rather than personal quarrels. Moscow’s bureaucrats, he said, had actually united behind Bibilov, with the heads of both the Ministry for Extreme Situations and the head of Gasumyanov’s directorate in the Presidential Administration dropping into South Ossetia to stump for Bibilov during the campaign. “You can’t say that Bibilov is a South Ossetian candidate so much as he is the candidate of Moscow and Moscow’s bureaucrats together,” said Mukhanov.

Likewise he said a personal rivalry between Gasumyanov and Bibilov was extremely unlikely, adding: “don’t expect too much political intrigue here.” Gasumanyov had to follow the government line and support Bibilov, while Kolerov likely had a business arrangement with Kabisov. With the remaining candidates dropping out, he continued, support for the election would fall back into familiar categories: “The choice now is far clearer then before – it’s either the establishment candidate or the opposition candidate.” said Mukhanov.
The source
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