Rebel South Ossetia to vote for new leader
The breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia will vote Sunday for a new leader for the first time since Moscow recognised its independence after the 2008 war with Tbilisi.
Eleven candidates have waged a bitter campaign for the right to succeed Eduard Kokoity, the former wrestling champion who has dominated politics for the last decade in the tiny Caucasus mountain region which claims a population of some 70,000.
Whoever wins will be recognised as South Ossetian president only by Russia and a handful of distant states, with the West insisting that South Ossetia and fellow rebel region Abkhazia are an integral part of Georgia.
Georgia says South Ossetia is occupied by Russia, which has built military bases and stationed thousands of troops there since the war, when most of the ethnic Georgian population was driven out in what an EU-commissioned report described as "ethnic cleansing".
"These so-called 'elections' are illegal and illegitimate because they are held in an non-existent state by a regime established through ethnic cleansing," Georgian Reintegration Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili told AFP.
The pre-election campaign has been a ferocious and sometimes farcical affair quite out of proportion to the region's tiny size. The main opposition candidate was not allowed to stand, sparking protests by his supporters.
The nominal favourite is the current minister of emergency situations Anatoly Bibilov, whose candidacy is openly backed by the Kremlin as well as Kokoity who is not allowed to stand for another term.
But the outcome of the election which will go to a second round if there is no overall winner in the first, remains in doubt with several other candidates in with a chance of overcoming Bibilov.
These include the leader of the social democratic party Dmitry Tasoyev, minister of information Georgy Kabisov, bread factory chief Vadim Tskhovrebov and female candidate Alla Dzhioyeva.
Absent however is the popular and vehemently anti-Kokoity trainer of the Russian freestyle wrestling team Dzhambolat Tedeyev, who was seen as the main opposition contender until the authorities refused to accept his candidacy.
The election commission said he had not lived in South Ossetia long enough over the last decade, causing hundreds of his supporters to attempt to storm the commission's headquarters in a rare public show of political dissent.
For all its much-trumpeted independence, South Ossetia remains in a parlous state, its economy reliant on Russia for survival and the main town Tskhinvali riddled with pot holes, turning it into a virtual swamp in bad weather.
Rebuilding after the 2008 war has at times ground to a halt, a failure blamed on corruption.
"These elections are the dirtiest in the history of South Ossetia, in the most literal sense," wrote Russia's Kommersant daily. "It's an understatement to say that you get mud up to your knees on the streets."
In this context, the main campaign issue has been further integration with Russia with the candidates disagreeing only over to what extent this should take place.
Kabisov has openly stated that South Ossetia should become a part of Russia and unite with the neighbouring Russian region of North Ossetia and Bibilov also described the idea as a "dream that we cannot give up".
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.
"We have no other option than closer ties with Russia. We have no other way," Kokoity told South Ossetian official media ahead of the vote. "This is something sacred."
Election day will also see a referendum on raising the status of Russian in South Ossetia to that of a state language along with Ossetian.
Tbilisi lost control of South Ossetia in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and failed to retake control over the region in the 2008 war with Russia.
© 2011 AFP