Explainer: Elections in S.Ossetia

Sham polls that change little

Story Highlights
  • Elections, deemed illegitimate by all, except Russia and its distant clients, won't change much in how the occupied region is governned;
  • United Ossetia, a clone of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the current ruling party, is likely to win the elections by a large margin;
  • Campaign period was relatively calm, with frequent visits of top Kremlin officials

Voters in Georgia’s Russian-held province of Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia will go to the polls on June 9, to elect the new configuration of the region’s 34-member legislative assembly. These elections are not recognized as legitimate by Georgia, OSCE or EU. Still, they are one of the means to gauge what stands for the political dynamics in this occupied region.

So, what do you need to know?

Basic facts

According to the Tskhinvali authorities, a total of 73 polling stations will be opened in South Ossetia. Four more polling stations will function outside the region for ‘South Ossetian citizens,’ including two in the Russian province of North Ossetia-Alania, one in Moscow, and another one in Sokhumi.

There is no credible data about the number of registered voters, but the local election administration estimates the figure at about 31,000. Tskhinvali’s 2015 census – also unreliable – put the total number of population was 53,438 persons, which makes roughly half of the pre-1990 population.

It will be the seventh “legislative election” held in the region since it broke away from Georgia in early 1990s, and the third after the Russian Federation recognized its independence from Tbilisi.

Elections in the region are denounced as illegitimate by the Government of Georgia and the international community, except of Russia and four other countries (Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru), which have recognized the region as an independent state.

How are deputies elected?

The election will be held under mixed proportional-majoritarian system; 17 seats will be distributed proportionally in the closed party-list contest with a seven percent threshold, and the remaining 17 seats will be filled from single-mandate districts (both individual and party nominations are allowed).

The new system replaces a fully proportional representation that has been in place since 2009, and essentially amounts to a return to a system that had been functioning through 2004. The change copies the decision of the Russian authorities to go back to mixed representation in its State Duma.

As part of the changes, nine single-mandate districts have been established in the town of Tskhinvali, the regional capital, and two seats were allocated to each of the Tskhinvali, Akhalgori, Java and Znauri districts.

Map of Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia with district boundaries (Znauri in red, Java in yellow, Tskhinvali in green, Leningori/Akhalgori in blue). Photo: http://rso-government.org/

Akhalgori district will elect two deputies in single-mandate constituencies. One of them, from Tsinagari sector, which is predominantly ethnic Ossetian and was under Tskhinvali’s control even before the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and another one from the more sizeable part of the district, Ksani valley, where Tskhinvali and Russian control was established after 2008, and where Georgians form the majority. Since only passport-carrying “South Ossetian citizens” are allowed to vote, the total number of voters in this area is reportedly around 600.

Political system

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 South Ossetian ‘constitution,’ however, suggests that the region is a semi-presidential republic, with presidential branch dominating the legislature and the cabinet of ministers.

According to the document, the ‘president,’ who is popularly elected, heads the executive branch, guides foreign and domestic policy and appoints and dismisses the head of ‘government’ (subject to ‘parliamentary’ approval), while the ‘parliament’ is responsible for adopting laws, approving treaties, defining the budget and appointing/dismissing a number of officials.

Parties, candidates

Seven parties are competing under the party-list contest and 99 candidates are running in the majoritarian elections, including 60 party nominees and 39 independent candidates.

Four out of the seven political parties – United Ossetia, Unity of People, People’s Party and Nikhas – are represented in the sitting ‘parliament’.

The United Ossetia, a clone of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, commands 20 lawmakers in the 34-member assembly, Unity of People has seven members, while the People’s Party and Nikhas have four seats each.

Below is the full list of parties running in the Sunday’s poll:

  • United Ossetia (Edinaya Ossetia), led by the incumbent South Ossetian leader, Anatoly Bibilov. The party has centered its campaign around the themes of tighter integration with Russia, government effectiveness, economy and direct befits to residents (house repairs, foodstuffs and the like). In the 2014 assembly polls, it garnered 43,19% of votes.
  • Unity of People (Edinstvo Naroda), led by the former head of Java district Vladimir Kelekhsaev. In the previous assembly election, the party collected 13,24% of votes.
  • People’s Party (Narodnaya Partia), led by a ‘parliament’ member Amiran Diakonov. The party enjoys the support of the former South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, who traveled to Tskhinvali shortly before the election day to show support. In the last assembly election, the party obtained 9,09% of votes.
  • Nikhas, led by the former ‘foreign minister,’ David Sanakoev. In 2012-2019, he chaired the New Ossetia party, but decided to dissolve it in the lead up to the June 9 election and join forces with Nikhas. In the 2014 assembly polls, Nikhas garnered 7,47% of votes and New Ossetia failed to clear the 7% threshold. The Nikhas-New Ossetia alliance has also endorsed by Alan Gagloev, who obtained 10.1% in the 2017 ‘presidential’ election.
  • Unity (Edinstvo), led by the former ‘economy minister,’ Gennady Kokoev; the party was founded in 2003, under ex-leader Eduard Kokoity, and served as the ruling party from 2004 until 2011, when its ‘presidential’ candidate Anatoly Bibilov lost the race to an opposition candidate (the results were later annulled, prompting mass protests). Unity failed to clear the 7% threshold in 2014.
  • Fatherland (Fidibasta), led by Vyacheslav Gobozov, former head of the committee for information and incumbent representative of Anatoly Bibilov in the ‘parliament.’ Fatherland positions itself as a socialist party. It failed to clear the required threshold in 2014.
  • Communist party, the oldest South Ossetian party, is chaired by veteran politician Stanislav Kochiev. The leader himself is not running for a seat in the Sunday’s election. The party was represented in the legislature for more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but failed to enter the ‘parliament’ in 2014.

All political parties favor region’s closer integration with the Russian Federation.

Moscow’s Choice

Moscow has been tightly involved in all electoral decisions pertaining to Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions. This time too, the Kremlin made sure that the polls would be held under its close scrutiny.

The upcoming election was discussed at Vladimir Putin’s working meeting with Anatoly Bibilov on March 6, 2019, less than three weeks before the latter would announce the date of elections.

The Russian President said then that he hoped the election would be held “in line with the law and democratic standards,” and that Moscow would send monitors to observe the ‘parliamentary’ polls.

Many interpreted Putin’s pre-election meeting with Bibilov as a sign of his overt endorsement.

Anatoly Bibilov and Sergey Shoygu, Moscow, May 27, 2019. Photo: presidentruo.org/

This conclusion was also reinforced by numerous visits of the Kremlin’s top Tskhinvali ‘supervisors,’ including the Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, the Deputy Minister for North Caucasus, Igor Koshin (who visited Tskhinvali twice and praised the South Ossetian leader for his implementation of the Moscow-funded investment program) and the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council, Rashid Nurgaliyev.

Nearly two weeks before the election, Bibilov also managed to secure the audience with the ministers of Defense and North Caucasus, Sergey Shoygu and Sergei Chebotarev in Moscow, sending a clear message to his voters that Bibilov and his United Ossetia party remain Moscow’s favorites in the upcoming polls.

Campaign period

The campaign period was held in a relatively calm environment, but there were some allegations of electoral misconduct and abuse of administrative resources by the ruling United Ossetia party.

United Ossetia enjoyed generous media coverage throughout the campaign period, dwarfing that of other political parties. These included the highly publicized meetings of Anatoly Bibilov with Russian officials and their support to the socially vulnerable. The authorities also made sure to ban electoral blocs just few months before the elections, in an apparent attempt to preclude any possibility of opposition union.

Accusations were voiced from the opposition as well. David Sanakoev of Nikhas, for instance, said their supporters were under pressure by the authorities, and were asked to switch sides in favor of the ruling party. He also claimed the authorities were handing out ‘South Ossetian passports’ to residents of the Georgian-majority Akhalgori district, to inflate the number of voters ahead of the upcoming polls.

There were also allegations of use of registration procedures against specific candidates and parties. RFE/RL’s Russian-language Ekho Kavkaza reported from Tskhinvali that registration procedures were intentionally left vague to prevent undesired candidates from registering their bids. As a result, out of 157 applicants to majoritarian elections, only 99 were registered by the local election administration.

Foreign observers

According to the local election administration, the polls will be monitored by approximately 50 observers, including those from the Russian Federation, and the regions of Abkhazia, Donbass, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. The Russian delegation will consist of nine members of the State Duma and five members of the Federation Council.

The local authorities also reported that there will be three observers from Italy, two from Japan (led by Mitsuhiro Kimura of the far-right Issui-kai movement) and one each from Nicaragua (Melvin Agurcia, MP from the Sandinista National Liberation Front), Germany (Gunnar Lindemann of the far-right Alternative for Germany), Finland (Erkki Johan Bäckman, pro-Russian political activist) and Belgium (Kris Roman, head of the pro-Russian Euro-Rus organization).