What South Ossetia Can Teach Us About Russian Politics

Putin’s rating soars Amid Russia’s War in Ukraine.” According to the Levada center (a generally respected Russian polling firm), as of late March 2022 an amazing 83 percent of Russians said they supported Vladimir Putin, an increase from his numbers before the expanded invasion of Ukraine. If these ratings are to be believed, then Putin could actually still win a free election in Russia if one were held today. But Putin has supposedly enjoyed high poll numbers for years—why does he consistently act like he is cornered? If it is true that Putin and his people are confident of the public’s support, why don’t they ever ask the public for a real mandate? Why does he keep having sham elections and killing his opponents, opponents who might poll only in the single digits? There is Boris Nemtsov, whom the Levada center polled at 6 percent in the mid-2000s. Why did he attempt to kill Alexei Navalny with nerve gas? And why is Navalny currently in a gulag and en route to a different, notoriously terrible prison colony with a reputation for torture?

Putin’s manifest hostility to democracy in Russia is not just about his paranoia. If he wants to maintain his dictatorial power and his grip on the minds of Russians then he must keep Russian politics locked securely down. It would just be a foolish risk for him at this point to let a real opposition appear to contest elections, even if he kept control of the security forces, and all the TV stations, and even controlled the final vote count. Elections means campaigns, and campaigns mean publicity, which could provide a platform for inconvenient messages. Even if the result is predictable, any unpredictability in what is said or done in the campaign could introduce narratives. 

To illustrate the possible dangers that even partly free political campaigns would present to Putin, let’s quickly take a look at South Ossetian presidential politics. This little Russian proxy inside Georgia has been de facto independent since the fall of the USSR and had this de facto independence protected by “Russian peacekeepers” (Russian soldiers with a white stripe on their helmet). In fact, “defending” South Ossetia was the official casus belli for Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Russia recognized South Ossetia as independent that year, and there has been a general expectation that at some point it might fully “join” Russia the way Crimea did in 2014. South Ossetia is an important base for Russia to threaten the rest of Georgia—the border of the proxy republic is just north of the main East-West highway in Georgia—and the main oil pipeline. 

Even so, South Ossetia has some kind of “democratic” politics, or perhaps one should say that it holds elections. According to Freedom House, “Although South Ossetia’s elections occur regularly, they are severely restricted at all stages of the process, and are not monitored by independent observers or recognized by the international community” and that during the 2017 election “political debate and competition only occurred within a narrow field of candidates allowed by Russia and pro-Russian authorities.” The U.S., EU, and Georgia do not recognize any of the elections that are held in the region, and the only countries that have recognized South Ossetia other than Russia are Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the tiny Pacific island of Nauru. 

Still, as long as they are not anti-Russian or support reuniting with Georgia, opposition parties and candidates have been tolerated and even get to run in South Ossetian elections. In 2011 local opposition candidate Alla Dzhioeva actually won the runoff vote for president. She was a teacher who turned to politics after she was dismissed from her post for criticizing the president. However after her election victory with 52 percent of the vote, and even after her win was certified, the South Ossetian Supreme Court ruled that the election was invalid and demanded a revote. Dzhioeva is no anti-Russian agitator, and she described herself as pro-Russia, but the candidate whom she ran against, Anatoly Bibilov, was a strong proponent of unifying with Russia. He had been endorsed by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and was part of the clique who had run South Ossetian politics up to that point—a former “minister of emergency situations” and a former Russian paratrooper. When the authorities reran that presidential election Bibilov did not run. (Perhaps some Russian curators decided that it was not worth the risk of another loss.) Dzhioeva was barred from running again, and the new election was won by Leonid Tibilov, the former head of the South Ossetian KGB.  Bibilov became “speaker of the Parliament” of South Ossetia, and had to wait till 2017 to win a new election and become president.

Bibilov is the head of the “United Ossetia” party, a name that obviously references Putin’s United Russia party. At the start of the 2022 elections he was obviously the Kremlin’s preferred candidate to run South Ossetia. When he was officially nominated by his party to run again, the convention got a visit from a number of Russian members of parliament including Andrey Turchak, the secretary of the General Council of the United Russia Party. The head of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (one of the two major Russian proxies in Ukraine) also came to the congress. Bibilov was the recognized candidate for Russia and in March he reiterated his old stance that South Ossetia will join with Russia. 

But Bibilov lost the presidential elections on May 8, 2022, after a runoff! Just as in 2011, this loss was not the story of a plucky pro-western democratic opposition candidate triumphing against all odds—the winner is just as likely to be the Kremlin’s man. That winner, Alan Gagloev, is literally a KGB officer—serving in the South Ossetian KGB of course. (As in Belarus, the authorities in South Ossetia have not seen the need to cosmetically change the acronym of their secret police force, as the Russian authorities did in the 1990s.) The notable thing is not the election itself, but some of the things said around the election related to the war. 

If you allow anything close to real politics, then you will allow some real politicians, and politicians will sometimes strike their opponents when and where they can—even if it is awkward from a, shall we say “wider” viewpoint (that is, Moscow’s). Eduard Kokoity is the “ex-president” of the Russian proxy. He was the main ruler of this breakaway statelet from 2001 to 2011. Folks who remember the 2008 Georgia war might recognize him, as he was in charge of the Russian proxy at the time. He had attempted to run for president again this year (the attempt was blocked, allegedly because he had spent too much time abroad—in Moscow—to run for president). He seems to be an enemy of Bibilov and in 2020 he had called for Bibilov to resign. Kokoity is one of Russia’s men, but he is also a politician, and when a group of 300 South Ossetian soldiers deserted their units and returned from Ukraine in March, Kokoity smelled blood. The soldiers reportedly complained that they had been thrown into battle in Ukraine with insufficient supplies and were “left to die.” They left and got home by hitchhiking. Radio Free Europe reported a really remarkable statement from Kokoity about this:

“We can talk a lot about the elections, but here a fellow came to us who had a loved one in the war. There are many women here as well. Let’s give it some thought and help them somehow. Our headquarters [political office?] helps them in any way they can, but now these people do not need money or food. They are not even dressed normally, they do not have the standard weapons that they are supposed to have. They called me and told me that most of their equipment is broken … . Yes, we are with Russia, but are we going to let our children die like this? … I already called Moscow and explained that this and that, [our] youth go forward, they do not retreat, they rush forward, but they need at least a little of created [decent] conditions … We aren’t sending them to a resort, they know this and knew where they were going. Last time we saw them off, we knew how they were set … I know that now someone is trying to organize street actions, to organize [their] parents. Let’s do everything properly, legally, and in a civilized fashion. But we won’t let these guys get hurt … These youth also say, no, don’t listen to anyone, we are ready to fight, but what should we do in such a situation? If the boss is drunk and doesn’t understand anything, then what should the subordinates do?!”

He also issued a statement on Telegram in which he also urged people not to protest: 

“I ask everyone, and especially the relatives of our soldiers, to remain calm and refrain from protest actions that you are being provoked to do. This can only harm our soldiers and complicate the situation, which is already tense … It must be remembered that hundreds of our fighters are now in the combat operation zone and are heroically doing their duty. No circumstances should be allowed to undermine their morale.”

This incident won’t change anything about politics in the proxy state of South Ossetia, but if Kokoity is asking locals not to protest, it means he is afraid of protests. He seems upset or is at least channeling the anger of people whose relatives are getting sent to Ukraine to die. Kokoity’s Telegram channel went silent on April 4, a few days after issuing these statements. On April 7 he was appointed “special representative of the President of South Ossetia” for the duration of the war. 

Perhaps the idea here is to get Kokoity up front as the mediator between angry veterans and their relatives and the Ossetian political elite. That might be enough to head off political trouble if nothing else happens, but soldiers are still dying in Ukraine and the ball of public criticism is rolling. There was a meeting between Bibilov and some of the returning South Ossetian soldiers some time in late March. Bibilov specifically asked that nobody record the meeting, but a Russian opposition outlet managed to get a recording and have some excerpts translated from Ossetian into Russian and English. The South Ossetian soldiers complain that their “equipment was straight up unusable.” There was disorganization, unusable equipment and weapons, conflicting orders, no medical support, and poor artillery support: “When they were sending us away, they said the artillery would work first, then the heavy armour would move in. In reality, the opposite happened: the artillery was firing and missing their targets by a long margin, up to two kilometres.” One veteran claimed that an incompetent commander hid from his troops and had to have a protection detail because he was afraid of his own men, and that later some special forces guys messed up his face. You can read the whole report here.

Will we see anything similar to this in Russia? Not yet, probably not for some time, but one hopes that if the Russian bodies keep piling up the Russian people will eventually have enough. Is there anyone in Russia of Kokoity’s equivalent stature who can sound off on these kinds of issues without getting killed and open a debate or at least a strain of dissent, even loyal dissent? In South Ossetia at least there was a minimal kind of “safety valve”—another candidate the people could vote for if they wanted to express their displeasure (even if the other candidate was also the Kremlin’s man). It might even be wise for dictatorial regimes to have this kind of dual system—with a real power and then a sham democracy in the foreground to relieve pressure, like the system in Iran. In Putin’s Russia, unfortunately for Putin, there is no chance of a pressure relief valve. It is too early to hope for some kind of political change to happen there brought on by the war, and if Putin is replaced the new Russian president is unlikely to be a democrat, in my opinion. But perhaps Putin’s war will at least re-introduce something close to real politics in Russia.

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