South Ossetia Elections Show Russia’s Clout Waning

by Daniel Vajdic

Officials in the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia, whose independence is recognized by Russia and only a handful of other countries, annulled the results of the territory’s presidential election earlier this week. The South Ossetian Supreme Court charged opposition candidate Alla Dzhioyeva with vague electoral violations and prohibited her from standing in a repeat presidential election rescheduled for March. Dzhioyeva — an anti-corruption crusader and former education minister — had an almost insurmountable 17 point lead over her rival, based on results from 74 of 85 precincts. She declared victory on Wednesday and announced that unless the Supreme Court accepts her appeal, the current government “will be [held] responsible for further developments.”

Political instability in a pseudo-state with a population of 60,000 doesn’t justify any substantial attention, and rigged and subsequently contested elections are a common occurrence in the former Soviet Union. But the failure of South Ossetia’s presidential election and the popularity of Dzhioyeva are indicative of broader trends that have significant, largely favorable consequences for the U.S. It’s remarkable that Dzhioyeva’s Kremlin-backed rival couldn’t secure an honest victory under free and fair conditions despite receiving a clear endorsement from Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Moscow went to war with Georgia to “save” South Ossetia in 2008, recognized it as an independent country, and spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually subsidizing its budget and its virtually nonexistent economy.

The election turmoil in South Ossetia perhaps more than anything illustrates the Kremlin’s waning regional influence. Russia’s relations with Ukraine improved when Viktor Yanukovych became president but remain highly unstable below the surface. Ditto for Belarus. Minsk’s recent rapprochement with Moscow is the result of Aleksander Lukashenko’s international isolation, the country’s severe economic challenges, and its dependence on reduced natural-gas prices for survival — not Belarus’s genuine desire to improve ties.

The Kremlin’s “managed democracy” may be the favored model of corrupt, autocratic elites throughout the former Soviet Union, but this week’s events in South Ossetia demonstrate that the people of these countries prefer an unqualified form of democracy. If Russia can’t manage to secure victory for its preferred candidate in a neighboring protectorate, then its influence has declined much more drastically than previously thought.

— Daniel Vajdic is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.