No recognition for breakaway South Ossetia's vote

The Georgian region votes Sunday on independence and for a leader. The poll is not seen as valid.

As South Ossetians prepare for this Sunday's presidential elections, there's just one problem: They're the only ones who will recognize the results.

The Nov. 12 vote will also feature a referendum calling for landlocked, breakaway South Ossetia – a tiny scruff of land joining Georgia to Russia's unstable North Caucasus – to reassert its desire for independence.

Spitting distance from Chechnya and linked via a 2-1/2-mile tunnel to North Ossetia – home to Beslan, the site of the 2004 school massacre – this Rhode Island-sized region held a similar referendum in 1992 after violent clashes with Georgia. But the vote, which passed with 99 percent in favor, went unrecognized by the international community.

Once again lacking the world's blessing – and the basic economic necessities for autonomy – this election has been denounced by Georgia and the international community as a bid to join with Russia, which provides the region with overwhelming economic support.

The South Ossetians see things differently.

"Nobody really cares whether the elections are recognized by the international community or not," says a South Ossetian woman, whose job does not authorize her to speak on the record. "This is a good chance to show them that we have determined our future for ourselves."

Almost 70 percent of South Ossetia's approximately 70,000-strong population has been issued newly-minted South Ossetian passports – a voting requirement – and 72 polling stations have been set up.

And while recent signs suggest that approval for Russia and de facto President Eduard Kokoity is waning, there is little doubt that support for independence is likely to be overwhelming.

"It is quite clear that the absolute majority sees their future apart from Georgia," said Oksana Antonekno, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, who led recent Georgian-South Ossetian peace talks.

With Russian-Georgian relations at a historic low, Georgia has accused Russia of using political and economic tools – such as paying salaries, appointing Russian officials, and issuing Russian passports – as a means to "annex" South Ossetia in order to prevent Georgia from joining NATO, a key goal of Georgian President Saakashvili's administration.

But for now, South Ossetians see Russia as their best bet. They claim prejudice and even ethnic cleansing by Georgians in the 1920s and 1990s, with a recent flare-up in 2004, when now-Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili sent special troops into the region in an attempt to reclaim it for Georgia – an attempt that backfired.

"Everyone thinks we're puppets in the hands of Russia, but the situation is not so simple," says Vakhtang Dzhigkaev, economic adviser to Mr. Kokoity. "We want to be open to Europe and America, to show them why we're afraid."

International observers have long said that any conflict here has the potential of spilling over to the rest of the unstable region.

But while both South Ossetia and the international community seek ways to maintain a fragile peace in a region wracked by frequent low-level skirmishes and the constant threat of all-out war, they are at odds over how to secure it. Concerned over the precedent South Ossetia may set in the wake of discussions over possible independence of Serbia's NATO-controlled province of Kosovo, the West has pushed "territorial integrity" – the protection of existing borders – as the only way forward.

The South Ossetians have instead insisted on a hard-line position to independence that has marginalized them internationally but which they say are integral for a long-lasting peace.

"A failure to recognize South Ossetia will turn Tskhinvali [South Ossetia's de facto capital] into Beirut, with unending militarized clashes and tensions in the region," said Alan Dzhusoev, head of Club Open Society, a leading South Ossetian non-governmental organization.

Still, there are hints that some in the administration realize that the status quo cannot go on forever. "We should be open to solutions," Mr. Dzhigkaev says.

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