Two separate presidential elections and two separate referenda on the future of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia were held on November 12, but the outcome depends on your point of view. No agreement exists about which candidate is now the legitimate leader of this separatist territory.
In one vote, Eduard Kokoiti, the de facto president of the self-declared Republic of South Ossetia since 2001, has been declared the winner with a sweeping 95 percent of the vote, based on preliminary results. In a so-called "alternative" poll organized on Georgian-controlled territory in South Ossetia, Dmitri Sanakoyev -- a former prime minister of the de facto South Ossetian republic who Tskhinvali officials claim is bankrolled by Tbilisi -- has been declared the president-elect, with more than 80 percent of the vote.
The referenda differ as well. In the election organized by officials in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, voters were asked whether or not they agreed with keeping South Ossetia's "current status as an independent state" and whether or not the Republic of South Ossetia should be internationally recognized; an earlier, unrecognized referendum on this question was held in 1992. In the "alternative" referendum, voters were asked to say whether they want to begin negotiations with Tbilisi about a federal system of government.
The Tskhinvali-organized referendum passed with a reported 99 percent of the vote, according to preliminary figures. The referendum, Kokoiti asserted at a November 13 press conference, is "a very weighty argument, even for those who today refuse to recognize its results. We can say that South Ossetia has been recognized."
No information was available about results for the so-called alternative referendum.
While the final vote count for both elections will not be ready until later this week, both sides claim high voter turnout in their respective elections and accuse the other of high levels of falsification and violations. In a statement issued November 12, the head of the Tskhinvali-based election committee, Bella Pliyeva, announced that nearly 95 percent of voters participated in the elections; a little over 52,000 of the reported 55,000 registered voters. Kokoiti faced three other candidates in the Tskhinvali-organized poll: Oleg Gabodze, an unemployed former advisor to the head of the South Ossetian government; Inal Pukhayev, the administrative chief of Tskhinval Region; and Leonid Tbilov, a special envoy for talks on resolution of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. Candidates were not allowed to meet with the press on the eve of the election, but government spokesperson Irina Gagloyeva stated that the challengers themselves knew that Kokoiti would win reelection. "They know they won't win, but they want to have the experience of a political campaign," she said.
Kokoiti has promised South Ossetian voters a series of improvements, including salary increases and the construction of a Russian gas pipeline to improve heating supplies in the disputed territory. In official campaign materials, he termed the referendum "a call for peace" and condemned the United States for arming Georgia "and preparing it for aggression."
In the second presidential election, Sanakoyev, whose campaign posters were prominently posted on walls outside polling stations in Georgian-controlled villages, benefited from extensive media coverage in the Georgian press. The 37-year-old has largely eschewed details about his policy ideas, though, saying only that "a decisive step" should be taken to elect a "force" that can "conduct a measured policy of strengthening the republic's independence," revive the economy, stamp out corruption and restore hope for the future. Four other candidates contested the alternative election.
The alternative election commission, based in the Georgian-controlled village of Eredvi, did not announce the number of registered voters for its vote. However, it did report that 42,000 voters had cast their ballots at polling stations located throughout the de facto republic by 8 p.m. November 12.
Along with two rival elections, a dispute also persists about where the elections were actually held. According to Uruzmag Karkusov, head of the alternative election commission, voting stations were placed in both Georgian and Ossetian-controlled villages although some ballot boxes, Georgian television news reported, had to be delivered by horseback to avoid Ossetian-controlled roads. Karkusov claimed that voting would take place in the Ossetian-controlled villages of Kvaisa, Sinakuri, Znauri and in Tskhinvali.
Ossetian officials in Tskhinvali, however, strongly denied that the alternative elections occurred in Ossetian-controlled villages. At the same time, Gagloyeva, the Tskhinvali spokesperson, told reporters that six ethnic Georgian villages on Ossetian-controlled territory had expressed a desire to hold the Tskhinvali-based government's presidential elections and referendum.
In Tskhinvali, roughly 30 observers from countries ranging from Venezuela and Jordan to Latvia and Ukraine were on hand as of late November 11 to monitor the voting, according to Gagloyeva. The observers also included representatives from the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia and the disputed Moldovan territory of Transdnestr. There were no registered voting irregularities, according to official announcements. No international monitoring of the alternative elections is known to have occurred.
The Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States have all criticized the dual elections in the breakaway region. The criticism, however, did not appear to faze officials in Tskhinvali. "Who are they to shut our mouths?" Gagloyeva asked rhetorically in an interview on November 11. "Their own political interests in the Caucasus are more important [for them] than our fate." While some observers in Tbilisi had believed that the elections could provide an avenue for reconciliation in South Ossetia, so far, the exact opposite appears to be the result. At his November 13 press conference, Kokoiti termed Sanakoyev and Karkusov, head of the alternative election commission and a former advisor to Kokoiti, "traitors to their homeland and traitors to the South Ossetian people." Kokoiti stated that he would demand that Tbilisi extradite both men to Tskhinvali.
Whether residents of impoverished South Ossetia will take Sanakoyev's claim to be the legitimate leader of South Ossetia seriously depends largely on economics, commented Tbilisi-based Caucasus analyst Mamuka Areshidze. "That is the biggest mistake of the Georgian government that they have never showed the Abkhaz or Ossetians why they should be a part of Georgia. Show a person how you work, how you improve agriculture, how you help and they will [follow.]"
In Tskhinvali, though, interviewed residents expressed no desire for union with Georgia. "How can we be an autonomous region when we cannot use the name South Ossetia?" commented Khadiza Skhovubova, a 53-year-old bazaar vendor born in Tbilisi.
Whether in Tskhinvali or in Eredvi, on one point alone both sides in South Ossetia seem to agree on a need for peace. Asked what she hoped for from the referendum on independence, a Kokoiti supporter selling beer out of her home in Tskhinvali who gave her name as Lamsira, was succinct: "A normal life. We don't need anything else."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi. Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi. Kakha Jibladze contributed reporting to this story.