Monday, May 18, 2009

Window on Eurasia: South Ossetian Leader’s Authoritarianism Posing Problems for Moscow

Paul Goble

Baku, May 18 – South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity’s efforts to make himself president for life has turned that territory into one “free from law,” discrediting his regime in the eyes of the people there, providing excuses for Belarus and other countries not to recognize him, and compromising Moscow’s ability to control the spending of Russian assistance there.
All these problems were highlighted last week when a group of Kokoity’s political opponents came to Moscow to lobby for Russian intervention to guarantee the legality of the May 31 elections and specifically calling on the Kremlin to oppose Kokoity’s plans to change the republic constitution so that he could run for additional terms (
Indeed, these opposition figures told anyone in the Russian government who would listen that Kokoity’s drive for personal power is not only discrediting him and his regime at home and abroad but also discrediting the Russian authorities who have found themselves forced to support him despite some obvious misgivings.
The Kremlin, which already has had problems with Kokoity over the appointment of officials in his government, decided to back the South Ossetian opposition: Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Russian presidential administration, saying on Vesti 24 that South Ossetia should preserve the existing term limitations in the South Ossetian constitution.
On the one hand, the Kremlin could not do less. General Anatoly Barankevich, a hero of the August 2008 war, said that as a result of Kokoity’s authoritarianism, “that territory is free from law” and rapidly being discredited in the eyes of the population there because of its falsification of elections, corruption, and attacks on opposition groups.
But on the other, it could hardly do more, at least in public. Since it recognized South Ossetia as an independent country last summer, a step only Nicaragua has followed, Moscow has insisted that Tskhinvali has a democratic government, something that over interference would call into question and reduce the likelihood any other country would grant recognition.
According to reports from Tskhinvali, the upcoming parliamentary elections will be anything but democratic themselves. Kokoity in his drive for personal power has muscled aside the two main opposition parties and planned to push through a constitutional amendment eliminating the restriction on anyone serving more than two consecutive times as president.
Naryshkin’s statement, according to, is intended to “send a signal” to Kokoity that Moscow won’t interfere in the upcoming parliamentary vote – such interference would likely be counterproductive at this point in any event, but that it does not want him to remain in office after he finishes his second term next year.
Thus, Kokoity was, in the words of the Moscow portal, “politely” asked to find a successor and thus open the way for Moscow to take greater control of the situation than it has at present. But Kokoity’s past behavior suggests that he may equally “politely” ignore the question and push ahead with his own plans.
“What in that case might the Kremlin do with ‘the head of a young independent state?” asks. And while it provides no answers, there are a number of possibilities ranging from his replacement in a coup, something that would undermine the status of Tskhinvali and Moscow still further, to the absorption of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation.
That latter step is something Kokoity has sometimes suggested he would like, but it too would create problems for Moscow, which would then be forced to explain again how its military actions in Georgia last August could be justified if the resulted not in self-determination of two states as the Russian side claimed but annexation.
At the very least, South Ossetia and its leadership appear set to cause Moscow more headaches in the future than Abkhazia will, even though or perhaps because the regime there has more support domestically and more backing from Circassians and other communities who view Sukhumi as the first step in their effort to restore their homelands in the North Caucasus.

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