Will Kokoity Deliver on Poll Pledges?

South Ossetian leader must improve living conditions for locals in wake of election or risk support switching to opposition, warn analysts.

Will Kokoity Deliver on Poll Pledges?

South Ossetian leader must improve living conditions for locals in wake of election or risk support switching to opposition, warn analysts.

Eduard Kokoity, president of the largely unrecognised republic of South Ossetia, gained the parliament he was hoping in May 31 elections, but local people will turn to politicians prevented from contesting the ballot if his policies proved unsuccessful, say local observers.

It’s thought South Ossetians will be particularly keen to see concrete improvements in living conditions from the funds given to their government by Russia to rebuild the damage caused by last year’s war.

This week, Kokoity pledged to hand some of his broad powers to parliament that has been filled with his loyalists. Opposition parties, which failed to overcome a seven per cent barrier to enter parliament, accused the authorities of rigging the poll.

Kokoity has led South Ossetia unchallenged since 2001. It broke free from central control in a 1991-2 war. Critics accuse him of running the tiny territory, which has a population of approximately 70,000, as a personal fiefdom.

The European Union and Georgia both dismissed the election as meaningless, but Kokoity hailed the weekend’s results as an important step forward for his region, which was recognised as independent by Russia last year after a brief war sparked by Georgian attempts to regain control.

“I intend to work constructively with the South Ossetian parliament and am ready to give parliament large powers, including for reorganising and forming the South Ossetian government,” he announced this week.

The election results showed his Unity party had gained a majority with 17 seats, while the communists won eight. The remaining seven seats went to the Popular Party, headed by a man loyal to the president.

The Popular Party had been an opposition grouping, but was raided by police on April 10. All the party activists were detained for several hours, while an alternative party congress was organised, which elected a new leader loyal to Kokoity.

Another opposition party, called Otchizna, ran in the polls, but without its leader Vyacheslav Gobozov, who was deemed to not have lived in the republic for long enough. Without a leader, it failed to gain the seven per cent of the popular vote required to enter parliament.

“The elections were full of the crudest violations. The current authorities do not want to be surrounded by people with their own opinions. The only goal of these elections was to change the constitution, so Kokoity can run for a third term as president,” said Alan Gassiev, an opposition activist.

The government strongly rejected any suggestions that the poll had been rigged.

“The elections were conducted in full accordance with the laws of South Ossetia and it is not clear whose laws they did not comply with,” said Foreign Minister Murat Dzhioev.

“Observers were unanimous in saying the elections were lawful.”

Local experts said Kokoity had gained the parliament he was hoping for, but that he now had to be careful, since the local population would turn to those who were excluded from the poll if his policies proved unsuccessful.

“The voter has thought about his future, and was witness to a real political struggle. Individuals have appeared in South Ossetia who are prepared to openly criticise the government and who propose their own ways to emerge from the crisis. It is very likely that if the government does not solve the problems that it promised to solve in exchange for the loyalty of the population, then the voters will look to those who were excluded from this struggle,” said Alan Parastaev, an independent political commentator.

And criticism has been rising against Kokoity, particularly concerning the distribution of funds given to his government by Russia to rebuild the damage caused by last year’s war. Even the former secretary of the Security Council, Anatoly Barankevich, has accused Kokoity of embezzling the money – a charge that the president hotly denies.

Voters said the reconstruction cash had been a key issue in the polls.

“You call these elections? There was no choice, they just came around the houses, and said ‘vote, or Russia will be offended and won’t help us anymore’. But they haven’t done anything in the town. As it was before the war, that’s what it’s stayed like,” said Zhanna, a resident of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital.

A neighbour of hers, who asked not to be identified, had a similar opinion.

“Despite the fact that nine months have passed since the August war, almost nothing has changed, they have not even repaired the roads that were damaged in the war. I understand there are problems with the finances, but I can’t understand why it’s not even possible to repair the roads in Tskhinvali,” the neighbour said.

The polls were dismissed out of hand in Georgia and Western Europe. The Czech Republic, currently holding the presidency of the EU, issued a critical assessment backed by Brussels as well as several former Soviet States – Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

“The EU does not accept the legality of the ‘elections’, nor its results. The holding of such elections is illegitimate and represents a setback in the search for a peaceful and lasting settlement of the situation in Georgia,” said the Czech presidency.

“The EU reiterates its firm support for sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders.”

Georgia, which lost its last hold on South Ossetia in August when Russian forces drove Georgian troops and civilians out of the region, called the polls a “farce”. David Bakradze, the speaker of parliament, said they were a “parody of democracy”.

“It is cynical and unacceptable to speak of the people expressing its opinion, at a time when a large part of that population was forced to leave their homes, as a result of the wave of ethnic cleansing, which took in August last year,” he announced.

Georgian experts doubted the elections would make any difference to Tbilisi’s attempts to end the stand-off over the region, since no negotiations were happening.

“There is no point of talking about this having any kind of influence on [negotiations], since this process does not exist and it is unlikely that we can expect anything to start any time soon,” said Giya Nodiya, a Georgian commentator.

Alan Tskhurbayev works for Caucasian Knot (http://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.ru/)

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