South Ossetia Votes for Independence From Georgia

TBILISI (Agence France Presse)– Almost 100 percent of voters in Georgia’s small separatist territory of South Ossetia have opted for independence, according to partial results after a weekend referendum that critics warned could inflame regional tensions. Results received from 78 percent of polling stations following the Sunday referendum showed that 98 to 99 percent of voters had cast their ballots in favor of independence, election officials told AFP. No independent confirmation was available. But as local residents celebrated what the rebel authorities trumpeted as a victory, with cars honking horns and flying South Ossetian flags, political leaders in Tbilisi discounted the ballot as irrelevant. "Everybody needs to understand, once and for all, that no amount of referendums or elections will move Georgia to give up that which belongs to the Georgian people by God’s will," Georgi Tsagareishvili, head of the Georgian parliament’s Industrialists bloc said in televised remarks. On a visit to Moldova, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said the country would resolve its territorial problems peacefully and added that Tbilisi had "done everything possible to prevent the referendum provoking any kind of deterioration in the region." The leadership of the tiny region in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains maintains however that the referendum is a first step towards international acceptance and eventual union with Russia. "Integration with Russia is a priority of South Ossetian policy," the region’s de facto leader Eduard Kokoity said on Monday, according to Interfax, after preliminary ballot counts showed he won a landslide in "presidential" elections held in parallel to the independence poll. Moscow has backed the rebel authorities in South Ossetia while not explicitly endorsing full-blown independence. The international community warned it would not recognize the poll on the grounds it could aggravate a diplomatic crisis between Georgia and Russia. Polling data could not be independently confirmed. It was unclear how many, if any, ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia took part in the vote in this province of some 72,000 people, according to South Ossetian statistics. The only Georgian organization allowed to monitor the poll said the vote was marred by falsifications. "We believe that a mass stuffing of ballots took place," Arnold Stepanyan, who headed a team of three observers from the Multi-ethnic Georgia minority rights lobby group, told AFP. Russian observers, including parliament members who arrived en masse for the non-official poll, meanwhile gave it their seal of approval. The referendum was criticized by the secretary general of the NATO military alliance, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who said "such actions serve no purpose other than to exacerbate tensions in the South Caucasus region." Georgia, which accuses its neighbor Russia of trying to annex both South Ossetia and the breakaway region of Abkhazia, has branded the South Ossetian referendum illegitimate and vowed to restore control over the territory. Georgian officials see Russia’s hand in Sunday’s referendum and accuse Moscow of using the ballot to weaken Georgian statehood as punishment for Tbilisi’s pro-Western course, which includes moves toward joining the European Union and NATO. Some 55,000 South Ossetians were registered to vote, including about 20,000 refugees in the neighboring Russian region of North Ossetia, the region’s election commission said. Alongside Sunday’s vote a separate pro-Georgian "referendum" was held in some ethnic Georgian areas of South Ossetia for an alternative administration, although the head of the "alternative" voting commission, Uruzmag Karkusov, complained of harassment by South Ossetian authorities. Populated by both ethnic Ossetians and Georgians on Russia’s southwestern border, South Ossetia has long been a regional flashpoint. Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow escalated last month when Georgia arrested and then expelled four Russian officers it accused of spying.

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