The Electoral Commission of South Ossetia announced on April 9 that the former head of the region’s State Security Committee, Leonid Tibilov, had become the de-facto president of the region. Georgia, as well as the international community minus Russia and a handful of other states, considers the elections illegitimate.
Leonid Tibiliov won the runoff in the presidential elections held on April 8 with 15,786 or 54.1 percent of the votes and thus scored a convincing victory over David Sanakoev, the region’s human rights ombudsman. Tibilov’s past career accomplishments suggest that he could suppress the political clout of former de facto President Eduard Kokoity and put an end to the election crisis in the region.
Tibilov led South Ossetia’s State Security Committee (KGB) in the 1990s. He later served as the first deputy prime minister and co-chair of the Joint Control Commission for Georgian–Ossetian Conflict Resolution. Shortly after losing the presidential elections to Kokoity in 2007, Tibilov became chairman of the board of directors of a local bank in Tskhinvali. His latest position was as a consultant to the South Ossetian president’s special envoy for post-conflict issues. However, he left the job due to his strained relations with Kokoity.
The latest presidential elections were the third attempt to elect a new de facto leader. The crisis started when Anatoly Bibilov, the Kremlin’s favored candidate, failed to secure a victory over former education minister Alla Dzhioyeva in the presidential elections held in November 2011. Bibilov refused to recognize Dzhioyeva’s victory and filed a complaint to the breakaway region’s Supreme Court. The latter annulled the results due to suspected violations on Dzhioyeva’s part, scheduled new elections and banned Dzhioyeva from running in the repeat poll. As the opposition leader rejected the Court’s order, turmoil ensued in the region.
To put an end to the post-election crisis, Kokoity and Dzhioyeva struck a deal on December 9, in the presence of Kremlin officials. Although the agreement envisaged the retirement of the former president and several high-ranking officials, the pro-Kokoity legislature failed to endorse the move. In response to the abortive deal, the opposition leader decided to stage an inauguration ceremony for herself on February 10. One day before the planned ceremony, however, police assaulted Dzhioyeva’s headquarters. She was beaten and taken to hospital while her supporters were arrested by the police. However, according to official sources, she was hospitalized due to high blood pressure during an interrogation in her office. The crackdown prevented Dzhioyeva from participating in the region’s repeated presidential elections on March 25.
Four candidates competed in the repeat elections. Leonid Tibilov and David Sanakoev won the first round of the elections, scoring 42 percent and 25 percent respectively. Another Kremlin-backed candidate, South Ossetia’s long-time ambassador to Moscow Dmitry Medoev, gathered 23 percent of the votes, followed by Stanislav Kochiev with 5.6 percent.
Analysts assessed that Medoev’s votes would be cast for Sanakoev in the second round due to the strong rivalry between Medoev and Tibilov. Yet, the former KGB chief garnered 54.1 percent of the votes against Sanakoev’s 43 percent.
Tibilov’s victory was sustained by a popular stance he took at the very beginning of the election campaign, condemning the violence against Dzhioyeva and expressing a desire to cooperate with her supporters. In addition, the reputable trainer of Russia’s free-style-wrestling team Jambolat Tedeev, a long-standing Kokoity rival and a strong supporter of Dzhioyeva, supported Tibilov’s nomination. These circumstances placed Tibilov in a favorable position to seize the votes of those critical to the incumbent leadership but exhausted by protracted protest actions.
Throughout the presidential elections, issue-based political agendas were largely absent. Tibilov’s key political priority was in essence identical to those of the other candidates: South Ossetia’s accession to the Russian Federation. “ … My goal is to make the long-standing dream of a united North and South Ossetia come true,” the president-elect said in his victory speech, Ria Novosti reported.
Given the breakaway region’s high dependence on Russia, such priorities do not seem surprising. However, the fact that the candidates supported by the Kremlin never gained genuine support from the population warrants attention. The electorate seemed more concerned over to what extent the candidates distanced themselves from Kokoity, than over who Moscow preferred. In this light, the forcible exclusion of Dzhioyeva from the political processes made Tibilov the only alternative for a peaceful transition of power in the breakaway region.
Despite some signs of competition, the proxy region’s presidential elections can hardly be termed democratic due the fact that a large part of population was prevented from participating. The U.S. and the EU did not recognize the presidential elections as legitimate. Nino Kalandadze, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister, stated that “The Tskhinvali region remains an occupied territory of Georgia and any attempt to carry out any form of legitimate act will not be considered legitimate until those expelled on ethnic grounds have the right to vote.”