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Ossetia Votes to Pit Russia vs the West
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Results are expected today from South Ossetia's referendum on independence from Georgia.

The vote has been called illegal in the West and is opposed by the United States and European Union, but Russia says it should be respected. A "yes" vote for independence is virtually guaranteed.

Election officials Sunday said more than half of the 55,000 eligible voters had turned up by 11:00 GMT, validating the poll.

Nestled on the Russian border in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, South Ossetia first declared independence from Georgia after a war in 1991-92 that killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

But amid increased tensions within Georgia, and between Georgia and its giant neighbor Russia, voters have gone to the polls to declare their independence from Tbilisi once again.

Uniformed separatist fighters armed with Kalashnikov rifles braving cold weather outside polling stations were the only security forces visible in the South Ossetian capital.

Regional leader Eduard Kokoity, accompanied by two sons and followed by two dozen singing and dancing supporters, turned up in the morning at a polling station in a local school after visiting a war cemetery across the road to lay flowers.

"I voted for independence and a brighter future," Kokoity, widely expected to be re-elected, said after casting his ballot.

Madina Gurtseva, 33, who came to vote with her sister and niece, said: "I believe South Ossetia will eventually join Russia. That will be better for our children."

Most South Ossetians hold Russian passports and use the Russian rouble as their currency. The Russian flag flies next to South Ossetia's white, red and yellow flag around Tskhinvali, the region's capital.

They say they were forcibly absorbed into Georgia under Soviet rule and now want to exercise their right to self-determination.

Ethnically, Ossetians are different from Georgians, but the region, located just 100 kilometers from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, has many villages populated by ethnic Georgians.

The Georgians have rejected the vote called by the separatists and Sunday ran their own polls to elect a rival leader for South Ossetia. Tskhinvali does not recognize the alternative vote.

The referendum comes as relations between Moscow and Tbilisi are at rock bottom. Russia cut transport links last month after a spying row and it now says it may cut gas supplies unless Georgia agrees to a twofold price increase.

Georgia accuses Russian peacekeepers of backing separatists and wants them replaced. Russia denies the charges.

A 500-strong peacekeeping force composed of troops from Georgia, Russia and the bordering Russian province of North Ossetia has observed a fragile truce since 1992.

Skirmishes between separatists and Georgians have increased in the last few years as Georgia's pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili stepped up his rhetoric against breakaway statelets.

Saakashvili has said he will not recognize the result of the vote and Western powers have also described it as illegitimate.

But Russia says if the West supports independence for Kosovo from Serbia it should not deride independence drives in the former Soviet Union.

"We would be happy if the international community did not have double standards affecting us," said Kokoity.

(China Daily November 13, 2006)


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