Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

South Ossetia's Vote of Defiance

Residents of unrecognised republic defy Georgia and the West in independence vote.
By Alan Tskhurbayev
The November 12 independence referendum in South Ossetia passed off in a festive atmosphere, with long queues at polling stations as people waited to cast their ballots.



Many voters drank toasts to the prosperity of the unrecognised republic. After the polls closed, a concert was held in the centre of Tskhinval, culminating in a military salute.



The central electoral commission claimed a 95.2 per cent turnout. Sixty-two thousand people received new South Ossetian passports, without which they would not have been allowed to cast their ballots.



According to officials, ninety-nine per cent of voters responded positively to the question “Do you agree that South Ossetia should preserve its status as an independent state and be recognised by the international community?” And current leader Eduard Kokoity was re-elected with an overwhelming majority in a simultaneous presidential.



Kokoity told a press conference following his re-election that integration with Russia remained his main political priority.



The international community - with the exception of Russia - swiftly condemned the independence vote, while some questioned the need for such a ballot as one was staged in 1992, with similarly conclusive results.



The situation in the region, meanwhile, remains tense. Government spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva was reported to have been hurt when a stone was thrown through the window of her house on November 15.



Earlier, the former head of South Ossetia’s Supreme Court Alan Parastayev had voluntarily given himself up to the authorities, saying he had been paid by the Georgians to assassinate Kokoity.



The positive result in the plebiscite genuinely reflected the mood of most South Ossetians who want to be allowed to secede from Georgia. However, several voters, speaking anonymously, expressed cynicism at the vote, alleging it was planned by Kokoity, a 42-year-old former wrestler, to boost his own popularity.



The three candidates rivalling Kokoity were virtually unknown before the election. “They are all from the president’s entourage, they are his people,” said a Tskhinval resident, who did not want to be named.



Another resident suggested that when almost 100 per cent of residents vote for one man, the territory is effectively under dictatorship, “People voted for independence and for their president at the same time - it never occurred to a lot of them that they could do otherwise.”



However, some cast their ballot for the incumbent because they felt there’s no alternative. Alan Parastayev, chairman of the non-governmental organisation Civil Society (and not related to the other Alan Parastayev), said, “Irrespective of whether I agree with him or not, he is at the moment the only real politician both in the south and north of Ossetia.”



As for the independence poll, IWPR did find one person in Tskhinval who voted against secession. He said he had done so because he thought the election was a farce, “I voted that way only because I wanted to express my protest against this fraud. In reality, I want South Ossetia to be independent, but there can be no independence if it becomes part of Russia.”



In a parallel presidential and referendum poll in the village of Eredvi - denounced by Tskhinval - large numbers of local Georgians voted against independence. Georgian villages account for around a third of the republic’s overall population.



In their leadership poll, Dmitry Sanakoyev, former prime minister and ex-minister of defence of South Ossetia, became the alternative president of the republic. During the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Nineties, he fought against the Georgian army but is now seen by many in Tskhinval as a traitor.



Most South Ossetians believe the Eredvi polls were financed by Georgia. The prosecutor general’s office in Tskhinval launched a criminal case against the organisers of the ballots, charging them with extremism and attempting to usurp power.



The main independence poll has, as expected, provoked widely different reactions in Russia and the West.



The Council of Europe called the vote “unnecessary, unhelpful and unfair”. But the Russian foreign ministry, while stopping short of calling for the recognition of South Ossetia’s independence, released a statement saying, "Whether people like it or not, we are dealing here with an expression of free will by the people of South Ossetia, expressed through democratic procedures."



In response, a Georgian foreign ministry statement called the elections a “farce” and condemned the Russian stance.



“The authors of the comment [the Russian foreign ministry] seem to be totally blind to the actual state of affairs in the region and the general feeling of the majority of the region’s population, who are bored with war and confrontation, want to live peacefully and are in favour of negotiation, which the Russian side, as an impartial mediator, should, by all logic, be promoting,” said the statement.



Russian parliamentary deputy Konstantin Zatulin called for Russia’s State Duma to debate a motion on recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. “The recognition of independence is not a single act, it is a fairly long process,” he said. “But we must begin it. The most terrible thing is inactivity. That is worse than death.”



Alan Tskhurbayev is a correspondent for the Gazeta Ru website in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia.