Rebel South Ossetia votes for new leader

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The breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia went to the polls Sunday to elect a new leader for the first time since Russia recognised its independence after Moscow's 2008 war with Tbilisi.

A wide array of 11 candidates, ranging from a cabinet minister to the boss of a bread factory, are vying to become the president of the self-declared statelet of just 70,000 people in the Caucasus mountains.

Whoever succeeds Eduard Kokoity -- the former wrestling champion who has dominated South Ossetia for a decade -- will be seen as illegitimate by most of the world as its independence is recognised only by Russia and a handful of far-flung states.

Meanwhile Dzhambolat Tedeyev -- the main opposition figure in South Ossetia and the trainer of the Russian freestyle wrestling team -- was controversially barred from running on the grounds he had been absent from the region too long.

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.

Polls opened at 0400 GMT and are due to close at 1600 GMT with initial results expected in the evening. Election officials said early signs pointed to a strong turnout.

"Already we are seeing activity on the part of the electorate," the head of the election commission Bella Pliyeva told official South Ossetian media.

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 former education minister Alla Dzhioyeva.

Whoever wins will inherit a litany of problems besides the lack of recognition for South Ossetia.

Observers say that much of the funding provided by Moscow to rebuild South Ossetia after the 2008 war was siphoned off by corrupt officials and the main city Tskhinvali remains in a dire state, riddled with potholes and turning into a quagmire in bad weather.

© 2011 AFP

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