Rebel leader Eduard Kokoity swept parliamentary elections in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, final results showed. The EU slammed the poll, the first since Russia recognised its independence, as "illegitimate".
AFP - South Ossetia's strongman leader tightened his grip on the rebel Georgian region on Monday after a party loyal to him won elections condemned as "illegitimate" by the European Union.
Yedinstvo (Unity) won almost half the votes in the legislative elections, nine months after Russia and Georgia fought a war over the status of South Ossetia that plunged Moscow's ties with the West to a post-Cold War low.
It is the party most vocally supportive of strongman leader Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestling champion accused by his critics of muzzling opponents and stealing aid money sent from Russia.
The mountainous Caucasus region -- still largely in ruins and only recognised as independent by Moscow and distant Nicaragua -- remains a major sticking point in relations between Russia and the West.
"The EU does not accept the legality of the 'elections', nor its results," the bloc's presidency, currently held by the Czech Republic, said in a statement.
"The holding of such elections is illegitimate and represents a setback in the search for a peaceful and lasting settlement of the situation in Georgia," it added.
Final results issued by the election commission of the South Ossetian separatist government after Sunday's elections said Yedinstvo (Unity) was the clear winner after polling 46.36 percent.
The People's Party, also largely uncritical of Kokoity, won 22.53 percent while the Communists scored 22.25 percent.
"We will work closely together to follow the path of independence that the republic has chosen," Kokoity said as the results were announced.
None of the four parties competing for the 34 seats in the parliament could be described as overtly critical of the leader, after the central election commission barred the two other parties.
The name of Unity resembles that of Russia's ruling party United Russia, and the faction even used pictures of United Russia party leader Boris Gryzlov on its campaign literature.
"South Ossetia has gone on the United Russia path. A decisive role (in Unity's victory) was played by their active use of the methods of United Russia," Russia's Kommersant daily said.
The sidelined opposition has accused Kokoity of seeking a loyal parliament to push through an amendment allowing him to run again for office when his second term lapses in 2011.
Kokoity said it was too early to say whether he would run again to lead the region of 50,000 people, although he did not rule out that possibility.
"There are two and half years left till then and a lot left to do. We are working and working now. I am not thinking about it still," he said in an interview with AFP.
"With what happened in August we need three to four years to rebuild."
But Russia -- which outraged the West by recognising South Ossetia as independent in the wake of the August war with Georgia -- has said South Ossetia should not amend the existing term limits in its constitution.
Despite the slow pace of reconstruction, many praise Kokoity for his leadership during the August conflict.
"Kokoity has done a lot for the people of South Ossetia, he's fought 20 years for this country," Angela Tedeyeva, a 32-year-old teacher, said as she cast her ballot.
Georgia ridiculed the vote, with the country's Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili saying the elections were "a farce."
The election coincided with controversial NATO exercises in Georgia which were due to end on Monday after provoking a furious reaction from Russia.
South Ossetia has enjoyed de facto independence since the early 1990s thanks to tacit Russian support, but Georgia insists that it remains an integral part of the country's territory.
Date created : 2009-06-01