Day-to-day politics in Russian-dominated South Ossetia now a laughing stock

Lenoid Tivilov's election represents not a victory for self-determination and democracy but rather the triumph of a Soviet-era cocktail of Russian expansionism, intimidation and ethnic cleansing

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Leonid Tibilov emerges from the voting booth
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Daniel Hamilton
On 10 April 2012 08:40

Voters in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia have elected Leonid Tibilov ‘President’ with close to 55 percent of the vote.

The fourth such ballot to take place in South Ossetia in less than six months, day-to-day politics in the Russian-dominated enclave has become a laughing stock. 

The first two rounds of voting led to a victory for former education minister Alla Dzhioyeva, a staunch opponent of outgoing Putin-ally Eduard Kokoity and his hand-picked successor Anatoly Bibilov. Dzhioyeva's election was promptly annulled by Kokoity allies on the South Ossetian Supreme Court. Dzhioyeva, the court rather predictably declared, had engaged in widespread bribery and fraud to win the election.

Instead, a new election was ordered which pitted Tibilov against Kokoity's "human rights ombudsman" Davit Sanakoyev, hardline communist party official Stanislav Kochiyev and the region's envoy to Moscow Dmitry Medoyev.

For those familiar with the South Ossetian conflict, details of Tibilov’s CV will come as no surprise. Like newly-elected Russian President Putin, Tibilov is a former KGB officer who enjoys strong links with a Kremlin leadership that has grown increasingly infuriated with the Kokoity administration’s embezzlement of financial aid from Moscow. His pro-Moscow credentials closely mirror those of the Alexander Ankvab, the ‘President’ of Georgia’s other break-away region of Abkhazia who also served as a Communist official before accumulating a vast business fortune in Russia in the early 1990s.

While the South Ossetian leadership in Tshinkvali may seek to maintain the pretence of ‘independence’, any objective observer of the politics of the province would conclude that the region is a wholly bought and owned subsidiary of Russia.

On a day to day level, Moscow’s control over the region is governed by noble-sounding ‘Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between the Russian Federation and the South Ossetia’. While the document’s title may hint at bi-lateral cooperation between the two parties, it is little more than a charter for imposing Russian military force upon part of the Republic of Georgia.  

With the exception of a small stream of revenue generated from tolls for use of the Roki Tunnel linking the mountainous region with Russia, the South Ossetian administration relies entirely on funding from Moscow to stay afloat. 

Given its geographical positioning at the heart of the Caucasus, close to NATO member Turkey and Russia’s own troubled province of Chechnya, South Ossetia is seen by Moscow as a convenient place in which to station troops. The most cursory of glances across the heavily-militarised Line of Occupation at which the authority of the Georgian government ends and Moscow’s military rule proves that Russia remains in violation of international agreements to withdraw troops from the region.  

Largely as a result of international pressure from the United States and European Union, Moscow has so far stopped short of formally declaring South Ossetia part of the Russian Federation.  Instead, Russia has joined Nicaragua, Venezuela, Naura, Tuvalu and Vanuatu in being the only states to recognise the so-called Republic of South Ossetia. Moscow’s long-term intentions are, however, clear; residents of the province participated in Russia’s Presidential election in May, delivering Vladimir Putin more than 90 percent of the vote. The administration and execution of elections to the Presidency of a foreign power on Georgian territory has been widely condemned by the international community.

With the province beset by electricity, clean water and food shortages, the living conditions of the people of South Ossetia are bleak – particularly for the handful of ethnic Georgians who have remained in the area, whose suffering has been particularly protracted.

The war in the early 1990s led to the departure of from the region of roughly 120,000 ethnic Georgians, as compared to the region’s present-day population of 70,000 as optimistically claimed by South Ossetia. Human Rights Watch estimates that, of the 17,500 who remained in the province until the 2008 Russian invasion, less than 2,000 remain today. Many of these Georgians have been forced into sprawling and hastily-constructed refugee camps which today cling to hillsides on the main road leading north out of Tbilisi.

Georgia’s rich cultural heritage in the region has come under sustained attack by the South Ossetian junta.  

Georgian Orthodox Church parishioners have been banned from holding church services, including in towns such as Eredvi that were captured by Kokoity’s forces during the 2008 invasion.  Only last month, Russian was formally instituted alongside Ossetian as the formal language of the province. Tough regulations banning the teaching of the Georgian language have been instituted, effectively outlawing the few schools that remain in operation in the Akhalgori district.

Speaking at his victory party in Tshinkvali, Tibilov was explicit as to his administration’s plans: “our course stays the same and it will be continued. It consists of direct integration with the Russian Federation. We’ll be cooperating in political, economic, military-technical and defence areas. We’ll carry on this cooperation in such a way that Russia will see that we can’t let down the Russian Federation”. 

Despite Tibilov’s lofty pronouncements, the international community remains resolute in its support for Georgia.

A United States Senate resolution last year backed the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia and inviolability of its borders” and recognised South Ossetia has being “occupied by the Russian Federation”. British Foreign Secretary William Hague and the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Policy Baroness Catherine Ashton have also backed Tbilisi while NATO continues to support “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders”.

Now is the time for those bold statements to translate into real action on the part of the international community – from placing diplomatic pressure upon Tibilov’s patrons in the Kremlin to imposing an EU-wide travel ban upon the ‘President’ and his key lieutenants.

Tibilov’s election represents not a victory for self-determination and democracy but rather the triumph of a Soviet-era cocktail of Russian expansionism, intimidation and ethnic cleansing. In the year 2012, such a situation is nothing short of intolerable.

Daniel Hamilton is an independent commentator on the Balkans and Caucasus region.  He writes in a personal capacity.

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