Rebel South Ossetia holds tense run-off
Ex-Soviet Georgia's rebel region of South Ossetia on Sunday held a tightly contested run-off election for its next leader in a poll denounced as illegitimate by the West.
The first round on November 13 failed to produce an outright winner, with South Ossetia's emergencies minister Anatoly Bibilov and ex-education minister Alla Dzhioyeva winning around 25 percent of the vote each.
Bibilov's inability to claim anything close to an overall majority was a major surprise after his candidacy was unequivocally backed by the Kremlin and South Ossetia's outgoing leader Eduard Kokoity.
Analysts said his candidacy may have suffered because of the region's slow recovery from a devastating 2008 war between Russian and Georgian forces that turned South Ossetia into a effective Moscow protectorate.
Bibilov turned a deaf ear to such criticism as he and his family cast their ballots only metres away from a campaign post showing him shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
"The republic's future must be as bright as it is today," the local official news agency quoted Bibilov as saying.
Polls will close at 8:00 pm (1600 GMT) and will require a 30-percent turnout to be declared valid. Heavy snow blanketed the region on election day and turnout was reported at nine percent after two hours of voting.
The elections were the first leadership polls in the statelet since Russia recognised it and fellow breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent following the five-day Georgian conflict, which has kept the two sides' ties frozen to this day.
The United States and the European Union both dismissed the first round of polls as illegitimate while Georgia denounced them as a "cynical act of pseudo-democracy".
The electorate in South Ossetia is also tiny: while the rebel authorities say its population is 70,000, Georgian officials argue that the figure is no more than 15,000 due to the expulsion of ethnic Georgians and migration.
In an apparent attempt to bolster Bibilov's position ahead of the vote, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met the candidate in southern Russia last week.
Dzhioyeva, the only female candidate in the first round, appears to have benefited from the local authorities' visible failure to properly rebuild South Ossetia's central town of Tskhinvali after the war.
Kokoity, a former wrestling champion who has dominated South Ossetia for a decade, has also made no secret of his hostility towards her candidacy.
In an interview with Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, he said it was "excluded" that a woman could win.
"We have good relations with women in our society. But the Caucasus are the Caucasus," he said.
In the campaign Bibilov had stated he could favour South Ossetia becoming a part of Russia and uniting with the neighbouring Russian region of North Ossetia, a prospect that risks again fanning tensions with Georgia.
North Ossetia is the home of most of the world's Ossetians, a mainly Orthodox Christian people who speak a language distantly related to Persian.
© 2011 AFP