Breakaway Georgia region South Ossetia votes for president

TSKHINVALI, Georgia Sun Mar 25, 2012 9:42am EDT

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TSKHINVALI, Georgia (Reuters) - The Russian-backed breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia voted for a new president on Sunday, with its former envoy to Moscow seen as the Kremlin favorite.

The winner would become South Ossetia's first new president since Moscow recognized the small, mountainous region across its southern border as an independent nation after Russia's brief 2008 war with Georgia.

Georgia says the vote in South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs with Russian backing since the early 1990s but is recognized as independent by only a handful of nations, is illegitimate.

South Ossetia's top court annulled the results of a disputed November presidential poll. Voters are choosing among four candidates to replace Eduard Kokoity, who is at the end of his second term.

While South Ossetia's former envoy to Moscow, Dmitry Medoyev, 51, is considered to be the Kremlin favorite, Russia has been careful to avoid publicly backing any candidate after being viewed as heavily supporting one of the contestants in November. Medoyev himself denies having Moscow's backing.

A poll last week by the IR media centre indicated Medoyev or former Soviet KGB officer Leonid Tibilov, 59, were likely to win.

Preliminary results in the November vote showed that former regional education minister Alla Dzhioyeva won, but she was then accused by her rival Anatoly Bibilov of electoral violations, leading to the election re-run. Bibilov was seen as the Kremlin favorite.

The outcome of the election is unlikely to alter South Ossetia's dependence on Russia, which uses its influence on South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, to keep U.S.-backed Georgia's aspirations of joining NATO in check.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has since relied on Russia for financial and military support.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)

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