TSKHINVALI, Georgia (Reuters) - A pro-Russian former KGB officer won the presidency in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, where Moscow is trying to re-assert control, election officials said on Monday.
Leonid Tibilov, 60, received about 54 percent of the votes in a runoff on Sunday against regional human rights ombudsman David Sanakoyev, election commission chief Bella Pliyeva said.
Moscow recognized the tiny region of about 30,000 people as an independent nation after a 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, but it remains heavily dependent on Moscow’s financial help and military protection amid growing dissatisfaction over how funds are spent.
“We will develop the relationship with Russia in all areas. We are aiming to make an old dream about the reunification of South and North Ossetia a reality,” Tibilov told reporters at a polling station in the region’s capital, Tskhinvali.
North Ossetia is part of Russia and Tibilov’s call implies a de facto unification of the region with Russia, a move which analysts say Moscow is unlikely to make for now in order to avoid antagonizing the West, which accuses Russia of seeking to redraw borders by recognizing South Ossetia as independent.
Russia has spent about $1 billion supporting the impoverished region since the five-day war, which took place mostly on its territory. Many of its residents complain they have seen little sign of the money coming through.
Tibilov, who headed South Ossetia’s security agency in the 1990s and is praised for his modest lifestyle, acknowledged in the course of his campaign that funds had been misappropriated and promised to crack down on corruption.
Russia uses its influence on South Ossetia and another breakaway region of Georgia, Abkhazia, to keep U.S.-backed Georgia’s aspiration of joining NATO in check. Georgian entry to the Western military alliance is seen as problematic as long as the areas remain disputed territory.
Georgia says the South Ossetian vote is illegitimate. South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs with Russian backing since the early 1990s, is recognized as independent by only a handful of nations, including Russia.
A previous vote in South Ossetia in November was declared invalid after a candidate backed by the Kremlin and outgoing president Eduard Kokoity lost the poll and accused his opponent of violations. Neither candidate took part in the rerun.
Reporting by Kazbek Basayev; writing by Gleb Bryanski; editing by Tim Pearce