On February 9, masked South Ossetian police stormed the headquarters of local opposition politician Alla Jioeva in Tskhinvali. Shortly after the raiding police ravaged the building, one of Jioeva’s supporters was arrested, and Jioeva herself was taken to a local hospital with a stroke. The appalling details of the police operation emerged later, as Jioeva’s supporters gradually gained access to the outside world from this remote breakaway Georgian territory.
According to Jioeva’s spokesperson Violetta Dasaeva, who was present when the police stormed the building, police officers beat up Jioeva, hitting her with a rifle butt, and did not allow supporters to help her up while she was lying on the floor. The police did not call for an ambulance and, after she was hospitalized, the authorities blocked access to Jioeva and denied their misconduct (http://echo.msk.ru/programs/razvorot-morning/857518-echo/, February 10). According to anonymous sources among the hospital staff, two of Jioeva’s ribs were broken as a result of the police attack. The chief surgeon of the hospital, Mairbeg Kokoev, denied that Jioeva suffered any injuries. However, local observers noted the close family relationship between the surgeon and key figures in the South Ossetian administration (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-abroad/1497813.html, February 10).
The scandalous police assault on Alla Jioeva took place one day before her planned inauguration as “president of South Ossetia” on February 10. In the second round of “presidential elections” in South Ossetia on November 27, 2011, Jioeva dealt a crushing defeat to the man widely assumed to be the Kremlin’s candidate, Anatoly Bibilov. Moscow’s conspicuous backing of Bibilov made his defeat especially embarrassing to Russia. On November 21, six days before the second round, President Dmitry Medvedev visited Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, specifically to shake hands with Bibilov, but it did not help the candidate at all. As the local South Ossetian functionaries and their Moscow backers realized the opposition candidate was winning, they hastily declared the election results void on the grounds of mass fraud by the opposition. This sparked mass protests in South Ossetia that preceded the large protests in Russia following massively rigged parliamentary elections in the country on December 4 (for details, see “As Elections in South Ossetia Go Awry, Moscow’s Credibility Is Undermined,” Valery Dzutsev, EDM, December 8, 2011).
Moscow’s electoral debacle in South Ossetia carried into 2012 as the region’s authorities announced the postponed elections would take place on March 25. Following the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Moscow unilaterally recognized the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Both territories are heavily dependent on Russia for their security and economic well-being. Despite this heavy dependence, South Ossetians voting against the Kremlin’s candidate, largely because of their disillusionment with Eduard Kokoity’s regime, which failed to deliver on rehabilitation of the war-torn territory and was closely associated with the Kremlin.
Moscow has tried to distance itself from the events in this supposedly “independent” country. However, Russia’s role in the shocking events in South Ossetia is not difficult to discern. After the failed elections there, an ethnic Russian with no South Ossetian connection, Vadim Brovtsev, became the provisional head of the local government. The principal backer of Jioeva, Russian national wrestling team coach Dzambolat Tedeyev, was dismissed from his position at the same time the South Ossetian police stormed the opposition’s building in Tskhinvali (http://www.gazeta.ru/news/lastnews/2012/02/10/n_2200217.shtml, February 10). Russian officials denied Tedeyev had been dismissed, claiming instead that he had stepped down because of poor health (http://www.gazeta.ru/news/lastnews/2012/02/11/n_2200353.shtml, February 11).
Tedeyev was allegedly forced to leave Russia after the people of South Ossetia rose in support of their choice in November 2011, and he had tense conversations with FSB (Federal Security Service) generals at Lubyanka in Moscow. Tedeyev’s declared: “Tell me, why are you [the Russians] better than the Georgians? Both you and they coerce our people, and the South Ossetians have been fighting against it for 20 years and will fight as long as they are alive. We cannot live on our knees – as long as we are alive, we will fight for our choice. You do everything you can to undermine the Ossetians’ will to stay with Russia, and there are already [Ossetian] people who think that Georgia and Russia both want this territory [of South Ossetia] without Ossetian people” (http://uasdan.com/chochiev/1173-logika-kremlya-ili-otdelno-lubyanki-ubit-Tedeyeva-smyat-dzhioevu-razdavit-narod-ryuo.html, December 1, 2011).
On February 2, FSB officers searched the homes of rights activist Ruslan Magkaev and journalist Elina Marzoeva in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, which is officially part of Russia. The Russian security service officers were looking for evidence of a plot to “overthrow the South Ossetian government,” and the search was conducted at the request of South Ossetian prosecutors. Magkaev’s computers and cell phone were confiscated, which significantly hampered his ability to communicate with the public via the Internet (http://uasdan.com/magkaev/1271-obysk-v-dome-pravozaschitnika-magkaeva-ruslana.html, February 2).
Moscow’s stubborn and seemingly irrational unwillingness to admit the South Ossetian people’s right to elect their own government in fact has very rational, albeit perverse underpinnings. The ability of people to elect their own government despite what was agreed on in Moscow works against the current Russian political machine. The people’s right to revolt against the government’s refusal to obey election results is even worse of “a crime” for the Kremlin. Given the fact that the South Ossetian electoral troubles have coincided with the electoral cycle in Russia, Moscow’s concerns are understandable, especially as Vladimir Putin’s victory in the March 4, 2012 presidential election is anything but certain. The situation in South Ossetia may also have an impact on the situation in the North Caucasus, where most of the regional governors are deeply distrusted by the locals. People in the North Caucasus may increasingly start asking why they do not have the right to elect their own governors.
The government attack on the opposition leader in South Ossetia highlighted the striking commonality between the situation in South Ossetia and Russia. The very fact that the authorities in South Ossetia reacted in such a brutal way to Jioeva’s impending self-inauguration was an indication of their nervousness and lack of legitimacy. The Russian authorities also displayed nervousness in the face of mounting opposition to Putin’s third presidential term when they tried to ban protests or concentrated Interior Ministry troops in Moscow. It may be legitimate to claim that events in a tiny territory like South Ossetia could have an impact on a big country like Russia. The Kremlin appears to understand this.