South Ossetia Election Headache For Kremlin

The current election debacle in South Ossetia, the territory which, along with Abkazia, lay at the heart of Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008, may well be a sign of things to come in this weekend’s election in Russia.  If anyone was interested in observing how the Kremlin, which protects the region’s sovereignty with a military presence and financial aid, can orchestrate an election, even from afar, the events of this week have proved exemplary.

Last Sunday, voters in the restive region went to the polls to choose a replacement for outgoing president Edward Kokoity, with a choice between one-time education minister Alla Dzhioyeva and the Kremlin’s point man, the minister of emergency situations, Anatoly Bibilov, who has pledged that he will eventually oversee the re-integration of the state into the Russian Federation.  When, on Monday, it appeared that Dzhioyeva had won the election, a Supreme Court decision quickly followed to annul the results.  Since that, protestors have taken to the streets to be confronted by a heavy police presence. Memories of color revolutions apparently have the ruling forces anxious.  Simon Shuster from Time magazine looks back to the origins of the Kremlin’s involvement in finding a replacement for Kokoity in June, in an article which reveals how tricky ‘managing’ democracy can sometimes be:

In June, a group of armed men, representing the South Ossetian army and the office of the presidential guard, walked into the parliament building and demanded that the lawmakers allow President Kokoity to stay for a third term in office. This would require changing the constitution, which the lawmakers refused to do. Several of them, barricaded inside the chamber by the armed intruders, called the press to complain of a “military coup,” and Kokoity quickly got nervous. “Such demonstrations of the people’s love for the president,” he said of the storming of the parliament, “only create tensions in various segments of our society.” Within hours, Kokoity’s men left the parliament alone, and the president confirmed that he would resign when his term expired.

So the Kremlin continued looking for a successor. One option was Dzhambolat Tedeyev, the coach of the Russian national wrestling team. But he turned out to be an awkward fit. Although he was born in South Ossetia, he lives and works in Moscow, which disqualifies him from running for president. His supporters, however, were determined. In September, they armed themselves with assault rifles and tried to storm the election commission, demanding that he be registered as a candidate. For the second time in three months, local officials began complaining of an armed coup attempt. “They knocked the doors down, busted in the windows,” an election official told reporters during the siege. But Tedeyev, suddenly under the watch of the media and local police, also backed away from his campaign, and last month, he was deported back to Russia.

By that time, a committee of Russian officials had finished screening other candidates. “The casting went on all summer,” wrote Russia’s leading daily Kommersant. Its sources in the Russian government claimed that officials from the Kremlin, the defense ministry and two Russian spy agencies, among others, had been interviewing would-be presidents of South Ossetia. Finally, at the end of August, they settled on the region’s minister of emergency situations, Anatoly Bibilov, who had studied to be a paratrooper in Russia when he was young. His platform was simple. If he was elected, he would make South Ossetia an official Russian territory, no longer a quasi-independent state. This won him the endorsement of the United Russia party, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Moscow’s political technologists called the elections then and there. “The support of Moscow will be the key factor in this presidential race,” one of them, Sergei Mikheyev, told Kommersant in August.

But in November, when the voters actually went to the polls, things did not go as planned. Bibilov and his handlers were apparently so confident in their victory — how could they lose with Moscow’s support? — that they did not bother to mount much of a campaign. The first round of voting on Nov. 13 had Bibilov in a dead heat with an opposition candidate, a matronly ex-minister of education named Alla Dzhioeva (pronounced JOY-eva). A run-off ballot on Nov. 27 then handed a clear victory to Dzhioeva, who was ahead by a margin of around 16% with most of the votes counted. The same day, surrounded by her supporters, she performed a traditional victory dance in the ice-covered central square.

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