So it has come to this. For a short while, South Ossetia’s Presidential election looked like a total win. The polling wasn’t merely quite free and fair, South Ossetia’s electorate actually handed a preliminary 56.74% second round majority to Alla Dzhioyeva, the opposition candidate, against Anatoly Bibilov, the candidate openly endorsed not only by autocratic President Kokoity and his Unity party, but also by Russia’s government (whose President Medvedev went so far as to schedule a personal meeting with Bibilov). Alas, before long the election descended into chaos after all.
After the publication of the preliminary results which indicated Dzhioyeva’s victory, the Unity party filed a complaint with the Supreme Court saying that Dzhioyeva’s campaign had engaged in voter intimidation, which the Supreme Court promptly ruled in favour of. It forbade the Central Election Commission to publish the second round’s final results, it ordered the Parliament to set a date for a repeat election, and it barred Dzhioyeva from participating therein.
Quite understandably, Dzhioyeva and her supporters have not accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling. And quite rightly, given that election observers declared the election more or less free and fair. So the situation has developed into a stand-off, with Dzhioyeva’s supporters on the streets in protest, and Kokoity and Moscow declaring that the Supreme Court’s ruling must be respected.
The current situation carries a strong sense of déjà vu, being so very similar to Abkhazia’s ‘Tangerine Revolution’ in the autumn of 2004. One would have thought that Russia’s authorities had learned from that experience, and given its non-interference in Abkhazia’s election this past August, it did seem that way. South Ossetia is even more dependent on Russian support than Abkhazia, its inhabitants probably consider Russia even more favourably, and South Ossetia is of less geopolitical interest to Russia to Abkhazia. So for all intents and purposes, the outcome of the election should have been much less important to Russia than the fact that they were conducted credibly. After all, the credibility of Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia squarely rests on the credibility of their respective state projects.
So what exactly does Russia think it is doing? Perhaps Russian officials were so fed up with the massive misuse of aid funds under Kokoity that despite the past negative experience in Abkhazia they decided to openly endorse someone they believed would be able to manage things properly, Bibilov. And perhaps they simply didn’t trust Dzhioyeva to do a good enough job. It is also possible that Moscow’s current insistence that the ruling of South Ossetia’s Supreme Court be respected reflects a genuine desire not to interfere in internal affairs. But that is a very charitable reading of events, and it is much more likely that in the reported words of Moskovsky Komsomolets editorial, the Russian officials responsible are not merely bastards, but morons.
Given the familiarity of the scenario that is enrolling now, current events have already been labelled the Snow Revolution, a designation that is perhaps not very catchy, but very fitting given the meteorological backdrop of Dzhioyeva’s vigil. Yet despite the very similar set-up, there are some important differences in comparison to the Tangerine Revolution in Abkhazia. Unfortunately for Dzhioyeva, South Ossetia’s parliament and all the Republic’s top officials seem securely on the hand of Kokoity and Bibilov. In 2004, Abkhazia’s Parliament and its Vice President favoured opposition candidate Bagapsh, while the security services declared their neutrality. The current legal situation is also different. There is now a Supreme Court ruling that is not easily overturned, whereas in Abkhazia in 2004, Khajimba’s supporters merely forced the Central Election Commission to issue revised results, a decision that could easily be undone once more. So while Dzhioyeva may be an excellent personification of a people patiently but adamantly refusing to have its will be denied, she is facing a formidable challenge. Instead of a Snow revolution, her people may simply face a South Ossetian Winter.
On the other hand, there are also difference that speak in favour of a positive outcome. The election result and the injustice is much clearer now than during the Tangerine Revolution in 2004, when Bagapsh scored a mere 50.08% majority, when the participation of Mingrelian voters was indeed questionable from a constitutional point of view and when the alternative was a comparatively reasonable second round run-off. Also, whereas in 2004, outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba was the father of the Abkhazian nation and his words carried a lot of weight, South Ossetia’s President Kokoity is an upshot ex-wrestler who enjoys little respect. Finally, South Ossetia is notoriously small, its population in the tens of thousands. In such a small community, where everyone knows everyone, including officials, it will prove hard to ignore the determined will of the people when it feels it has been subjected to a grave injustice.
Maurice Bonnot of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris expressed the problem very elegantly: South Ossetia’s political actors need to learn how to lose.