Voters in Georgia’s Russian-held Tskhinvali/South Ossetia region will vote in “presidential elections” on April 10. Georgia and most of the international community, including the U.S., EU, and OSCE do not recognize the sham vote.
Still, they are one of the means to gauge what stands for the political dynamics in the occupied region, especially amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, when incumbent leader Anatoly Bibilov campaigns on the ticket of S. Ossetia’s annexation by Russia. So, what do you need to know?
According to the Tskhinvali election administration, a total of 72 polling stations will be opened in S. Ossetia. Four more polling stations will function outside the region including two in the Russia’s North Ossetia, one in Moscow, and another one in Sokhumi, occupied Abkhazia.
There is no credible data about the number of registered voters, but the local election authority estimates the figure at about 34,000. Unreliable 2015 census by Tskhinvali put the total number of population at 53,438 persons, roughly half of the pre-1990 population.
Elections in the region are denounced as illegitimate by the Government of Georgia and the international community, except for Russia, Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru, which have recognized the region as an independent state.
The political system of Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, with its informal power structures and deep penetration of the Kremlin, is difficult to classify under traditional government types.
The S. Ossetian ‘constitution,’ however, suggests that the region is a semi-presidential republic, with presidential branch dominating the legislature and the cabinet of ministers.
The ‘president,’ elected for a five-year term, serves as the head of both executive branch and the “state,” guides foreign and domestic policy and appoints and dismisses the head of ‘government’ (subject to ‘parliamentary’ approval).
The legislature, on its part, is responsible for adopting laws, approving treaties, defining the budget and appointing/dismissing a number of officials.
Five candidates are running in Sunday’s poll:
- Anatoly Bibilov, 52, is an incumbent and the front-runner. Bibilov graduated Russia’s Ryazan Airborne High Command School in 1992. In 1994-1996 he was a commander of Tskhinvali’s MoD special task force. Before starting service in the Russian “peacekeeping battalion” in S.Ossetia in 1998, Bibilov lived and worked in Kyiv for two years as a commercial director of an unspecified enterprise. Before the 2008 War he was deputy commander of N. Ossetian peacekeeping battalion in the conflict zone. In August 2008 he participated in the Russo-Georgian War. In November 2008 he was appointed as the ‘minister of emergency situations.’ Bibilov’s first attempt to become the region’s leader failed in late 2011. In 2017, however, he won with 54.8% (17,736 votes) against then-incumbent Leonid Tibilov, who received 33.7%.
- Alexandr Pliev, 49, deputy speaker and the chair of the People’s Party, is a long-serving lawmaker in the occupied region. Pliev is a well-known doctor. From 2002 to 2018 he worked as the head of anesthesiology and resuscitation department of the local Somatic Hospital.
- Alan Gagloev (Eduardovich), 41, is a former state security committee officer. Since 2020 he chairs “parliamentary” party Nykhas. In 2017 presidential polls Gagloev landed third with 3,291 votes (10.1%). As per his official biography, he participated in Russo-Georgian War of 2008.
- Garri Muldarov, 35, is a lawmaker since 2019. In 2003-2013 he worked in Tskhinvali “defense ministry,” and since 2013 to 2018 in the foreign intelligence service of the occupied region. Muldarov, who was the chair of the commission for “border delimitation with Georgia,” recently demanded Bibilov’s impeachment over the controversial ‘land ceding’ case.
- Dmitry Tasoev (born in 1974) is a former vice-speaker. At the onset of his career, Tasoev worked in Tskhinvali customs service in 1992-2000, in parallel with the “ministry” of defense and emergency situations in 1995-1998. In 2004 and 2009 was elected as lawmaker. In 2009-2010 served as the head of anti-monopoly service. In 2011, Tasoev took part in presidential polls to end fifth with 9.5%, failing to make to the runoffs. In 2010 he founded social-democratic party which in 2014 merged with Bibilov’s United Ossetia party. Erstwhile mates, Bibilov and Tasoev fell out in 2017, when he was ousted as a vice-speaker and from the party.
The electoral administration of the occupied region refused to register 12 presidential hopefuls, including lawmaker David Sanakoev and recently ousted defense chief Ibragim Gasseev, who were widely considered as only real contenders to Bibilov’s rule.
In March, lawsuits against the election authorities by Sanakoev and Gasseev, as well as those of artist Geno Kajaev, university lecturer Taimuraz Tadtaev, Aslan Kutarov and Rustam Dzagoev were dismissed by the local court. Previously in February, the voting commission also refused to proceed with former leader Eduard Kokoity’s registration.
Angered Kokoity and Gasseev attended a joint rally in Tskhinvali, demanding the detention of voting commission members whom they accused of falsifying Gasseev’s signature lists. They also alleged that Bibilov failed Ossetian language test, a precondition to run in election.
After the court announcements, some pro-opposition Telegram channels described the move as Bibilov’s “attempt to seize power by force” and “destabilize the situation in the interests of Georgia.”
Ibragim Gasseev later endorsed the candidacy of Aleksandr Pliev, deputy speaker of the legislature.
Programs & Debates
Local TV station Ir aired several rounds of debates between the candidates, devoted to the main points of their programs; security; economy; health and social policy; “political culture in the life of the republic;” education, youth policy, sports; culture.
During bilingual debates, Bibilov, Pliev and Gagloev frequently opted for talking in Russian, while Muldarov and Tasoev preferred to talk in Ossetian.
Outlining his main priorities, Dmitry Tasoev stressed the need for societal unity, and moving to parliamentary governance. During the debate, Tasoev spoke against having S. Ossetian troops integrated into the Russian army.
Referring to some of Tskhinvali troops’ unexpected going AWOL and heading back from Donbas, Tasoev accused Bibilov of sending them unprepared to the Russo-Ukrainian war. “If we had [our own] army, what’s happening now would not have happened,” he said referring to the incident.
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Garry Muldarov, the youngest candidate, stressed the development of “national ideology,” which he claimed should start from kindergartens. In his program, he focused on the necessity of creating S. Ossetian “permanent, professional army.” Muldarov’s less elaborated program also paid attention to rebuilding economy, tourism, sports and youth policy.
On his part, vice-speaker Pliev during debates stressed the need to “restructure the government” and called against the concentration of power at the hands of a single figure. In his program, Pliev touched upon creating a favorable investment climate in the region, noting that small and medium businesses should form the basis of S. Ossetian economy.
Gagloev’s program extensively discussed the problem of separation of powers in the region, problems with the judiciary and the weakness of self-governing bodies. He also focused on social inequality, with Russian donations ending in the pockets of powerful few, while many live in hardships.
Bibilov’s seemingly more detailed program has included harmonizing the legislation of the occupied land with that of Russia, creating 1,000 jobs, gasification, housing and agriculture. But Bibilov is first and foremost actively campaigning with the Russian annexation ticket.
Annexation Looming Large
Bibilov’s March 30 announcement about taking “appropriate legal steps in the near future” for Russian annexation has stolen the limelight.
An array of Russian politicians promptly welcomed the announcement, with ruling United Russia’s Andrei Klimov suggesting that Tskhinvali should first hold a referendum, after which there will be “no legal obstacles” for the annexation. Bibilov later said plebiscite would take place in a few weeks after the April 10 vote.
During the debates on March 31, Bibilov’s rivals — Tasoev, Gagloev and Pliev — reportedly welcomed Russia’s annexation of S. Ossetia (Muldarov did not attend the debate), but accused the incumbent leader of abusing the topic for electoral purposes.
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“This is a political move. For us this is incomprehensible. The Russian Federation is building relations with the State of Alania [another name of the region for S. Ossetians – Civil.ge] as an independent state,” said Tasoev.
Alan Gagloev of Nykhas party on his part alleged that Bibilov was “turning peoples’ lives into a game.”
During the debates, Pliev accused Bibilov of sending his people “to knock on the doors” across the region, telling people that “if you don’t vote for [Bibilov], you won’t join Russia.”
“I don’t know what they [people knocking on the doors] talk about, but if they say so I agree with them,” responded Bibilov, without an explicit rejection of the accusation.
The Kremlin knows who its favorite is in the upcoming poll.
The Secretary of the General Council of ruling United Russia party, Andrey Turchak visited Tskhinvali in early February to support Bibilov’s bid. Russian MPs Aleksandr Karelin, Andrey Krasov and Dmitry Sablin also accompanied Turchak in Tskhinvali.
Turchak asserted that Bibilov “has the necessary experience and knowledge of state-building, good personal potential for active development of Russian-S. Ossetian relations and the implementation of the socio-economic development.”
Besides, Head of Russia’s N. Ossetia province, Sergei Menyailo as well Kremlin’s top men in Donetsk and Luhansk, Denis Pushilin and Denis Kolesnikov also visited Tskhinvali in support of Bibilov.
According to the the region’s top diplomat Dmitry Medoev, the polls will be monitored by observers hailing from Russia, the occupied regions of Abkhazia and Donbas, and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as those from Austria, Germany, Finland, Nicaragua, Turkey, Venezuela.
As per the region’s election commission, more than 40 international observers are expected to arrive in Tskhinvali.
While the reports did not specify the names, pattern from previous polls show observers for the sham elections from the western countries are usually politicians belonging to far-right, Russia-leaning parties.
This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)