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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Vote in Ossetia: Is this the Apex of Russian Hypocrisy?

Could Russia possibly get any more hypocritical? It won't allow Chechnya its freedom, but it actively seeks to assist Georgian provinces in breaking away from Georgia and melding with Russia? How can Russians possibly expect anyone to take them seriously when they act in such an utterly outrageous manner? The Moscow Times reports:

TSKHINVALI, Georgia -- Voters in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia cast ballots on Sunday in a referendum that separatist leaders hope will reaffirm their bid for independence, although Georgia has warned that it will only increase tension. Police and security agents were out in force in the regional capital, Tskhinvali, with armed men in camouflage uniforms on every corner as ethnic music blared through loudspeakers. "Of course I voted for independence, independence and freedom. I want what every normal person wants," said Zoya Chugmazova, 64, a school teacher.

Most of Tskhinvali's streets were empty, and no reports of violence were recorded, though South Ossetian officials accused Georgian security forces of preventing residents of the village of Avnevi, 15 kilometers away from Tskhinvali, from voting. Georgian officials denied the claim. Election officials said that by 4 p.m., 76 percent of voters had cast their ballots -- well over the 50 percent plus one vote minimum required to make the vote legitimate. Election commission spokeswoman Irina Dzhagayeva said 55,000 people were eligible to vote. Six polling stations were also operating in the Russian region of North Ossetia, where some 20,000 South Ossetians now reside, Interfax reported.

A simultaneous vote for the regional leadership was also under way, and incumbent Eduard Kokoity was expected to win easily. Preliminary results were expected Monday.

The United States and Europe, which support Georgia's pro-Western aspirations and back its territorial integrity, are ignoring the vote -- the second such plebiscite since the region broke away from central government control in a war 14 years ago.

NATO on Saturday rejected the referendum, warning that it could exacerbate unrest in the region.

"On behalf of NATO, I join other international leaders in rejecting the so-called referendum and elections conducted in the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region of Georgia," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement. "Such actions serve no purpose other than to exacerbate tensions in the South Caucasus region."

Russia, which is in the midst of a bitter diplomatic crisis with Georgia, has stopped short of recognizing the referendum, but urged Georgia to respect it. The Kremlin has cultivated strong ties with the region, and indicated that it would closely watch the fate of the disputed UN-administered Kosovo province of Serbia, where many seek independence, as a potential precedent.

But Russia denies Georgian allegations that Moscow, which has given most residents of South Ossetia Russian citizenship, is seeking to "annex" the region.

South Ossetia has run its own affairs without international recognition since it broke away from the Georgian government in the 1991-92 war, which killed more than 1,000 people and displaced tens of thousands. The region is dotted by ethnic Ossetian and ethnic Georgian villages like a chessboard. Settlements are closely guarded by armed separatist forces and Georgian police.

The referendum, which asks voters if they support independence and seek international recognition, is expected to receive overwhelming approval, since ethnic Ossetians make up the majority of the population.

A 1992 referendum proclaiming the province's independence went unnoticed by the international community, however, leaving the region in limbo.

Kokoity was met with folk dances and traditional offerings of bread and cheese as he voted. He later told reporters that he was in such a good mood that he felt like dancing. "Today we vote for independence, for peace, stability and a civilized way of solving our conflict," he said. "We're stretching our hands to Russia and Europe so that they renounce the policy of double standards. We will prove that we are right."

Georgian villages in the region, whose residents number some 14,000. were holding an alternative plebiscite and an alternative election for the regional leader. The Georgian government, which does not formally recognize either vote, hopes the renegade election will demonstrate a rift in the separatists' camp.

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