South Ossetia, a tiny enclave of about 30,000 people independent from the former Soviet republic of Georgia but fully dependent on Russia, is a sad-looking, politically confused place these days. Freshly built and brightly painted buildings on a Russian military base stand next to piles of bricks, the ruins of former buildings. Laundry stiff with frost hangs on ropes stretched between holes in walls. In the dim winter light, cars creep along potholed streets that are lined with crumbling homes. Three years after a short war between Russia and Georgia for control of the region, South Ossetia reveals its unhealed scars. And the first question asked to a rare foreign reporter is, "Was Alla really beaten up by the police?"
A few months ago, the republic's former minister of education, Alla Dzhioyeva, was joyfully celebrated as the first woman to win a presidential election in the long-suffering local conflict zones of the Caucasus. During the election, Dzhioyeva—an independent candidate—and her team had opened up an acute discussion of the Kremlin's failed promises to reconstruct the republic, of massive bureaucratic corruption, and billions of rubles that disappeared on the way to South Ossetia. Excited about the idea of the first free election after the August 2008 war, more people voted for Dzhioyeva than the Kremlin-backed candidate. She received a copy of the election commission report confirming that she had won by a 16 percent margin. Moscow had drastically miscalculated.
The drama that followed brought blood and violence to the enclave that Russia went to war to protect. Instead of letting the ruined republic enjoy their independent candidate, a local court annulled Dzhioyeva's victory. This pushed thousands of her supporters to the streets to protest. "An active civic position and the sense that their opinion was being ignored brought people out," said Varvara Pakhomenko, an analyst with International Crisis Group. "By now South Ossetians probably feel they have become hostages of recognition." To stop the uprising, the Moscow-backed acting president ordered Dzhioyeva arrested. In early February, dozens of men in balaclavas allegedly broke into her house and beat Dzhioyeva's closest family, supporters, whoever tried to protect her. The last that her brother Konstantin remembered of that night's horror, he says, was his sister's unconscious body being thrown into a military truck.
Since Dzhioyeva's election, Russia has increased South Ossetia's isolation. Last week the Internet was shut off countrywide. The day before the reported attack on Dzhioyeva, Russian border patrol outside the narrow Rocksky Tunnel—the only road into the mountain republic—ordered Russian journalists to turn around and go back home. By Thursday night, as the alleged raid on Dzhioyeva began, Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations reported heavy snow slides had closed the tunnel. "By stealing the very last right our people had, the right to vote, by isolating us here like cucumbers in a bottle, Moscow is pushing South Ossetia to the verge of a civil war," said history professor Fatima Margiyeva.
As of press time, the 62-year-old Dzhioyeva remained in intensive care at the only hospital in the region. Military men with AK-47s slung over their shoulders guarded the entrance to her ward day and night, telling supporters and journalists they were "forbidden to enter" to try to see the opposition leader. Fearing her abduction, Dzhioyeva's brother and husband were taking night shifts by her bed. Photographs taken on cellphones, showing black bruises on Dzhioyeva's arms, had been circulating and infuriating the public. The authorities maintained she wound up in the hospital after fainting from a spell of high blood pressure.
But on the phone from the hospital, Dzhioyeva told The Daily Beast a different story: “The militants tore my body apart, threw me on the floor. I felt their guns sticking into my body the moment before I lost consciousness. They acted as if they were my executors,” Dzhioyeva said.
Moscow has not given any good explanation for the purported violence. Dzhioyeva's team, mostly women, shed tears at her office, which is still covered in pieces of broken glass and furniture. They also weep over the video they managed to take of her unconscious body, on the floor, lying between military boots. The Moscow-appointed administrator for South Ossetia, Vitaly Denisov, looked tired the other day. He shook his head in frustration to questioning. Why was Moscow against Dzhioyeva's candidacy? "Honestly? I have no idea. She represented one of two local competing clans." How much money did Moscow transfer for reconstructing the republic? "No idea. Last year out of planned 6.8 billion rubles, only 1.6 billion actually arrived." Was Dzhioyeva a victim? "I guess she was, but frankly, she should have been handcuffed long ago for her violations," Denisov said, declining to elaborate on what those might be.
South Ossetia is not the first place where the Kremlin failed to manage election results, but it is the first clear instance when it seemed to resort to blatant violence afterward. The director of the Center of Political Technologies, Igor Bunin, observed the results of elections in Transdniestria last December, which, like South Ossetia, chose a candidate independent of Moscow. "Putin has been losing his grip not just around [former Soviet] countries but at home too; nobody in his team of architects could calculate the massive protests in Moscow," Bunin said. "When the architect's plan fails, only one step is left to blood, violence, and chaos."
Moscow's silence to Dzhioyeva's plight might be an attempt to send a signal to South Ossetia's neighboring provinces in Russia's North Caucasus, analysts say. "Moscow is no longer interested in either the legitimacy of local authorities or the public support of Russian policies in the region," ICG analyst Pakhomenko said.