Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Georgian Elections and the "Snow Revolution"

World politics 2011: another day, another electoral crisis.  The latest ballot-box snafu comes to us courtesy of South Ossetia, which already struggles with Georgia over its desire to be counted as an independent state, and served as the catalyst for the Georgia-Russia war in August 2008.
Held on November 13, the first round of the territory’s presidential elections ended in a tie between Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibliov, a candidate openly supported by the Russian government, and former Education Minister Alla Dzhioyeva.  Dzhioyeva received approximately 57% of votes in the November 27 run-off, while Bibliov finished a distant second with a mere 40% of the vote.  Two other candidates favored by outgoing President Eduard Kokoity, whose reputation has been marred by accusations of embezzlement from Russian post-conflict reconstruction funds, each received less than 10% of votes during the initial contest, and were thus absent from the run-off ballot.

Like the recent parliamentary elections in Russia, the elections in South Ossetia have been accompanied by allegations of corruption and fraud, public protests and calls for a new vote.  In response to Bibliov’s claims that Dzihoyeva supporters used bribes and threats to solicit votes, the region’s Supreme Court declared the election invalid and scheduled a new vote for March 2012.  The legality of the Court’s vote has since been called into question, with Dzhioyeva arguing that the election results were verified by the Election Commission, international monitors and representatives from both campaigns, and former Information Minister Irina Gagloyeva claiming that several Court justices refused to participate in the ruling.  As many as 3,000 protesters filled the main square in Tskhinvali on November 30 in support of Dzhioyeva, and hundreds continue to occupy the area.  This afternoon, the border between South Ossetia and Russia was temporarily closed following the Court’s decision to uphold the earlier nullification and a grenade attack on a court prosecutor.

Since South Ossetia is considered part of Georgian territory by all but a handful of states and other actors, the outcome of the elections themselves is considered irrelevant by many in the international arena.  Giga Bokeria, the head of Georgia’s national security council, told reporters that the “conditions of occupation by a foreign country and ethnic cleansing” in the territory render the contest illegitimate, even when interpreted as an element of local representation rather than a show of autonomy from Georgia.  Meanwhile, other state governments have taken the opportunity to share their position on Georgian sovereignty.  The U.S. State Department has reiterated its support for Georgian territorial integrity, noting that “the United States does not recognize the legitimacy or the outcome of these so-called presidential elections and referendum."  Azerbaijan, which has a relationship with Nagorno-Karabahk that echoes the Georgia - South Ossetia sovereignty struggle, has made similar pronouncements.

Nonetheless, both the election’s outcome and the continued unrest in South Ossetia could have relevant security implications for both Russia and Georgia.  Despite its recognition of South Ossetian independence, its continued military presence in the territory and its allocation of significant annual subsidies for the territory’s struggling economy, Russia was unable to secure enough support for its chosen candidate, Bibliov, to win the election, even after President Medvedev publicly endorsed him.  Dzhioyeva’s victory could serve as an indicator that the influence of Russia’s current leadership is waning in the region, especially in light of the recent domestic elections that brought a significant decline in the number of Duma seats for Prime Minister Putin’s United Russia Party and the ensuing protests over alleged electoral fraud.  As for Georgian security: with some South Ossetian protests beginning to exhibit signs of violence, and Kokoity threatening to stamp out any sparks of a revolution in the territory, there are also concerns that the electoral disputes could trigger a broader domestic conflict if the central government becomes involved.  Should such a civil conflict occur, it would be interesting to see whether Russia would choose to intervene due to its close ties with South Ossetia, or would instead refrain from intervention in order to focus on its own election-based security issues and avoid a replay of the 2008 conflict.  While Arab Spring elections continue to draw headlines, the so-called "Snow Revolution" just may become another issue to watch.

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