Putin Gets His Man in Georgia

A former KGB officer and deputy prime minister has been declared the winner of a run off presidential election in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia by the province’s electoral commission.  Leonid Tibilov previously served as security chief in the province following the region’s early 1990s break with Tblisi, after Georgia declared independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union.

Mr. Tibilov is known as strongly pro-Russian, and he has made no bones about his desire for “direct integration” with Moscow.  He has reportedly promised to consult closely with the Kremlin on all matters of governance in the disputed region, and has declared his desire publicly to unite South Ossetia with the Russian province of North Ossetia, just over the Georgian border.

“We will certainly continue along the course towards Russia that has been chosen by our people – a course of further integration… in all existing spheres, including the economy, as well as military, technical, and defense,” Tibilov said.  “On election day, I said that I would consult with the people, but my goal is to make the long-standing dream of a united North and South Ossetia come true.”

This is the second presidential election in South Ossetia in the past six months, bringing with it results far more acceptable to Russia.  The previous election in November 2011 saw anti-corruption crusader Alla Dzhioyeva, a foe of outgoing president Eduard Kokoity, elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote.  Although she was considered pro-Russian, Ms. Dzhioyeva was not the Kremlin’s favored candidate, and the region’s supreme court subsequently vacated the election results.  Ms. Dzhioyeva refused to recognize the court’s decision, declaring herself president and organizing protest marches in the region’s capital, Tskhinvali.  The protests were forcefully broken up by Ossetian and Russian police forces, however, and Dzhioyeva wound up briefly hospitalized with heart problems.

New elections were ordered and Ms. Dzhioyeva was barred from running due to accusations of election fraud from her defeated opponent, the Moscow-backed Anatoly Bibilov.  Burned once in November, Moscow took no chances this time around, engineering the election among any of four acceptable candidates, including a local communist party leader.

The Georgian government strongly condemned the elections, calling them a “farce.” Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze underscored Tblisi’s claim to the disputed province.  “The Tskhinval [South Ossetia] 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.”  Mr. Kalandadze was referring to a 2006 referendum on independence in the province, which ethnic Georgians boycotted.  The Council of Europe and the EU dismissed the results.  Only a handful of countries, including Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, join Russia in recognizing the province as an independent republic.

Russia’s involvement in South Ossetia, and Georgia’s other breakaway province of Abkhazia, is a barely-concealed effort to maintain dominance over its former satellites in the Caucasus region.  For years before the South Ossetian war of 2008, Moscow had been issuing Russian passports in the regions in order to create phony demographic pressure to justify its intervention.  Local residents were reportedly forced to take Russian papers or face losing their homes.  Georgia has taken a nationalistic and strongly European outlook since the election of Western-educated President Mikhail Saakashvili in 2003.  This offends Russian ruler Vladimir Putin’s famous sentimentality for the former Soviet empire.

In Mr. Tibilov, Putin – himself a former KGB officer – has a fellow traveler who can be counted on to do the Kremlin’s bidding, further destabilizing Georgia and strengthening Russia’s influence in the internal affairs of its former Soviet republics.  European governments, along with the United States, should quickly and publicly recognize the election as a sham, and take more seriously Moscow’s nostalgic and interventionist foreign policy.

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