EU blasts poll in breakaway Georgian region

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The European Union reiterated today (14 November) that it does not recognise the breakaway region of South Ossetia, largely under Russian control after a brief war with Georgia in August 2008, nor the election held there on Sunday.

"In view of the reports about the elections in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia on the 13 November, this statement is to recall that the European Union does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework within which these elections have taken place," said EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

South Ossetia voted on Sunday in its first presidential election since Russia recognised it as an independent state following a brief war with Georgia in August 2008.

Voters in the tiny mountainous region of some 30,000 people choose among 11 candidates to replace Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestling champion whose second term is expiring. The new president will take office later this month.

Georgia says the vote was illegitimate and accused Moscow of occupying part of its territory (see background).

"The so-called elections don't have any political or legal meaning for us since they are not recognised by us and by the international community," Nino Kalandadze, Georgia's deputy foreign minister, told Reuters.

Apart from Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru will acknowledge the winner of the polls.

Anatoly Bibilov, the emergencies minister who has the support of Russia’s dominant pro-Kremlin party, and former education minister Alla Dzhioyeva each won 25%, news reports said, forcing a run-off in two weeks.

Voter turnout in the first round was more than 66%, officials said.

All 11 candidates in the race campaigned for close ties with Russia and took anti-Georgia positions.

There are few reliable polls, but analysts say Bibilov, 41, appeared to be leading the field.

"These elections are the dirtiest in the whole history of South Ossetia," Russia's leading Kommersant daily wrote ahead of the vote. "To say that out on the street you sink knee deep in mud is an understatement."

A vote on whether to make Russian the region's second official language after Ossetian was approved by 84% of the vote, RIA Novosti reported.

Russian observers monitoring the elections and referendum described voting as free and open.

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August 2008. The conflict saw Russian troops repel an assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which broke free from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s. 

Russia later recognised South Ossetia and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent states. Russia has thousands of troops stationed in both regions. 

Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, was quoted at the time by a French diplomat as essentially saying that he wanted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hanged. 

Privately, EU representatives generally recognise that Saakashvili was to blame for the 2008 war. However, he still enjoys Western support as a symbol of the 2003 'Rose Revolution' in Georgia.

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