Voters in South Ossetia have cast out the territory’s incumbent de facto president who was a clear favorite of Moscow. However, in spite of the rejection of the political status quo, South Ossetians remain committed to close ties with Russia.
In elections on April 9, parliamentary speaker Anatoly Bibilov won nearly 58 percent of the vote to become South Ossetia’s new de facto president, defeating the incumbent, Leonid Tibilov, who received less than a third of the ballots cast.
The results can be considered a rebuke of the Kremlin, which, as South Ossetia’s geopolitical and financial sponsor, sent clear signals that it would prefer Tibilov’s reelection. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin recorded a campaign commercial for Tibilov, which was played on heavy rotation on local television. On the campaign trail, Tibilov frequently mentioned his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And less than a month before the vote, Tibilov traveled to Moscow for a meeting with Putin, who publicly wished him “good luck” in the election.
Putin is an ardent practitioner of “managed” democracy, which has always stressed stability and the maintenance of the status quo over electoral choice or change. He nevertheless congratulated Bibilov after his victory.
The election took place against the backdrop of a steadily increasing Russian presence in a territory that Moscow recognizes as independent, but which most of the rest of the world considers a breakaway part of Georgia. Officials in Tbilisi, Washington, and Europe condemned the April 9 vote as “illegitimate.”
South Ossetian leaders have repeatedly announced their desire to formally join Russia, while Moscow has thus far appeared to be satisfied merely with exercising behind-the-scenes control – mainly by placing Russian officials throughout South Ossetia’s government and security forces.
Tibilov’s meeting with Putin – his tenth in five years in office – “was the greatest support that Russia could have given” the candidate, said Timur Tskhrubati, a South Ossetian political analyst, in an interview with EurasiaNet. Voters “didn’t have to guess, they could see how Russia favored him.”
In spite of strong public affection for Russia, and Putin in particular, voters seemed to react against the Kremlin’s open meddling in the election campaign. “Even as they support Putin, the South Ossetian electorate still was offended, and felt it was necessary to vote against the Kremlin’s favorite,” Tskhrubati said.
In addition, voters resented how Tibilov had come to pay more attention to Moscow than to them, Tskhrubati added. “Lately, he had stopped paying attention to South Ossetia’s voters, relying entirely on Moscow, thinking that everything depended on it,” he said.
“This was for the most part a protest vote,” said Olesya Vartanyan, a Tbilisi-based fellow with the International Crisis Group. “People voted not so much for Bibilov, but against the incumbent, who seemed too often to not be able to demonstrate his independence in the face of growing Russian influence in South Ossetia.”
That is not to say that Bibilov is anti-Russian. In fact, it was Bibilov who campaigned heavily on a program of reunification with Russia, arguing that he had developed a “five-step plan” aimed at uniting with Russia. Tibilov, for his part, took a more cautious approach, arguing that it was a question best left for after the election.
After his victory, Bibilov called again for reunification with Russia, specifically with the Russian republic of North Ossetia. “This is a strategic goal after all,” he said. “In just three years, it will be 100 years since the Ossetian people were split. This is very important and we will be doing so in contact with our counterparts in Russia.”
Also on April 9, voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to rename the republic to South Ossetia – Alania. The name became a populist issue in the region after other republics in the North Caucasus tried to appropriate the legacy of the medieval kingdom of Alania. But the name change also could pave the way toward merging with North Ossetia, which had already changed its formal name to North Ossetia – Alania.
Russia favored Tibilov mostly because he was a known quantity, and it had stacked his government with their own officials, Vartanyan said.
“Russia had sent many Russian officials to work in the de facto government, to monitor what was going on locally, and to correct any mistakes,” she said. “Russian officials were given so much power that locals had a joke in the election campaign, ‘Russians work and Tibilov brags.’”
“In this context, Tibilov was a significantly more comfortable candidate for Moscow, since he guaranteed stability in the system they had created, and had always expressed unquestioning loyalty to suggestions from Moscow.”
Ultimately, it should not have mattered to Russia who won. Both candidates were “convinced supporters of the furthering of the close relations between Russia and South Ossetia,” said Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, after the results were announced.
“Russia very clearly stated that it would support whatever the people of South Ossetia chose, but the only major candidates, Bibilov and Tibilov, were from inside the system,” said Alan Dzussoyev, the director of the NGO “Your Choice – Ossetia!”
Irina Kelekhsayeva is a freelance journalist based in Tskhinvali. Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet, and author of The Bug Pit. He is based in Istanbul.