Kremlin favourite falls short in South Ossetia vote

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The frontrunning pro-Kremlin candidate Monday unexpectedly failed to win the elections for a new leader of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, forcing a second round run-off.

Anatoly Bibilov, South Ossetia's emergencies minister whose candidacy was blessed by its main backer Moscow, narrowly came second to former education minister Alla Dzhioyeva in the first round of voting.

The presidential polls are the first since the 2008 war between Moscow and Tbilisi over South Ossetia but are set to be seen as illegitimate by the West which considers the region of just 70,000 to be an integral part of Georgia.

According to results published by the election commission based on 78 out of 86 polling stations, Dzhioyeva won 24.6 percent of the votes and Bibilov 23.8 percent. No other candidate polled more than 10 percent.

"A second round for the elections of the president of the republic of South Ossetia will take place," the commission said. The new poll should take place within 15 days of the final results being published.

Bibilov's failure to win anything close to an overall majority was a shock given his backing from Moscow and outgoing leader Eduard Kokoity, the ex-wrestling champion who has dominated South Ossetia for a decade and could not stand for a new term.

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.

Russian strongman Vladimir Putin said in August he would not be against South Ossetia becoming part of Russia, saying "the future will depend on the Ossetian people".

Bibilov described the idea as a "dream that we cannot give up" while Kokoity said he trusted his chosen successor to carry on a course of further integration with Russia.

Dzhioyeva, the sole female candidate, is by contrast seen as more of an opposition figure who will defend the independence of South Ossetia.

The main opposition figure in South Ossetia Dzhambolat Tedeyev -- the trainer of the Russian freestyle wrestling team -- was controversially barred from standing in the elections at all.

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 when most of the remaining ethnic Georgian population was driven out.

Moscow subsequently recognised South Ossetia and another Georgian rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent but South Ossetia in particular has struggled to eke out an independent existence and is kept alive by Russian funding.

Its self-declared capital Tskhinvali is in a ramshackle state and the authorities' failure to clear away an early fall of snow from its streets made just walking around problematic on election day.

In another step towards further integration with Moscow, voters also approved raising the status of Russian in South Ossetia to that of a state language along with Ossetian, in a referendum held on election day.

The head of the election commission Bella Pliyeva said voters had voted "yes" in the referendum, adding that full results would be published later in the day.

Turnout in the presidency election was just over 66 percent one hour before the close of the polls although final participation numbers have yet to be published. The nearest challenger to the leading duo was bread factory boss Vadim Tskhovrebov who won 9.3 percent of the vote.

© 2011 AFP

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