The numerical scores and status listed here do not reflect conditions in Georgia, which is examined in a separate report. Freedom in the World reports assess the level of political rights and civil liberties in a given geographical area, regardless of whether they are affected by the state, nonstate actors, or foreign powers. Disputed territories are sometimes assessed separately if they meet certain criteria, including boundaries that are sufficiently stable to allow year-on-year comparisons. For more information, see the report methodology and FAQ.
Large parts of South Ossetia, a breakaway territory of Georgia, enjoyed de facto independence after a civil conflict ended in 1992. A 2008 war that drew in Russian forces resulted in the expulsion of the remaining Georgian government presence and many ethnic Georgian civilians. Only Russia and a handful of other states have since recognized South Ossetia’s independence. The territory remains almost entirely dependent on Russia, and Moscow exerts a decisive influence over its politics and governance. Local media and civil society are largely controlled or monitored by the authorities, and the judiciary is subject to political influence and manipulation.
- The parliamentary elections took place in June, in accordance with new legislation and last year’s pledge by local leadership to provide more freedom for campaigns. Despite better laws, many government critics and opposition supporters could not register to run for election, which helped the ruling party sustain its dominance in the parliament.
- In July, the South Ossetian Supreme Court dismissed three previous criminal accusations (defamation, slander, and illegal acquisition of documents) against journalist and activist Tamara Mearakishvili. However, Mearakishvili has continued to face harassment from authorities and court prosecutions that restrict her ability to travel and work outside the region.
- In October, Tbilisi-based doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili was detained at a Georgian border crossing and spent almost two months in jail. He crossed into South Ossetia without authorization in order to help a local resident with a severe health condition.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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. In the most recent presidential election, in April 2017, former military leader Anatoly Bibilov was elected to a five-year term with 58 percent of the vote; he defeated the incumbent, Leonid Tibilov, who took 30 percent, and State Security Committee (KGB) official Alan Gagloyev, who took 11 percent.
Political analysts said that the conduct of the 2017 election was an improvement on the 2011 poll, the results of which had been disputed. Nevertheless, political debate and competition only occurred within a narrow field of candidates allowed by Russia and pro-Russian authorities.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
In June 2019, residents of South Ossetia elected parliamentarians through a new voting system: half of the 34 seats went to political parties in a system of proportional representation, while the remaining spots were designated to single-member constituencies in the region. Legislative elections are not internationally recognized, and the extent of Russian influence in the territory’s politics precludes truly competitive contests.
The parliamentary elections yielded some positive developments. In contrast to previous years, the political parties reported few problems with registration, campaigned in the region, and could take part in televised debates. Aside from the parties, however, more than half of the candidates for the single-member constituencies, mainly private individuals, failed to receive registration to stand in the vote. The United Ossetia party of President Bibilov won 14 seats, followed by the Unity of the People party with 5 seats, and the Nykhas movement with 4 seats. Smaller parties captured the remainder.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
According to electoral laws, candidates must have permanently resided in South Ossetia for 10 years. Former president Eduard Kokoity, the only candidate who openly opposed annexation of South Ossetia by Russia, was barred from running in the 2017 presidential election due to his failure to meet the residency requirement. The Supreme Court rejected Kokoity’s appeal, in which he claimed that the evidence put forth by the Central Election Commission (CEC) was falsified.
Authorities continue to restrict voting rights of ethnic Georgian residents remaining in South Ossetia. Russian political influence continues to call into question the independence of the CEC.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Moscow exerts a decisive influence over politics and governance, effectively placing significant restrictions on the ability of political parties outside of a narrow political spectrum to operate freely.
A number of new political parties were able to register in the past few years, including the ruling United Ossetia, which has governed the territory since winning the most seats in the 2014 elections. Officials from United Ossetia—which controls the de facto Ministry of Justice and thus oversees the party registration processes—did not reduce the number of political parties ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections. Six months before the vote, in January, the CEC launched an inspection of nine political parties that identified some minor mistakes in member lists; mistakes were soon resolved with no consequences for the parliamentary elections.
In January 2019, three local opposition parties united into the political movement Nykhas. Initially, the newborn alliance faced criticism from the CEC and complained about pressure on its supporters from regional authorities, but was later still able to register and run in the elections.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
In the 2017 presidential election, Bibilov, the opposition candidate, challenged and defeated the incumbent. However, the success or failure of the territory’s opposition politicians is largely determined by Moscow. South Ossetian government sources implied that banned presidential candidate Kokoity was not in Moscow’s favor.
In the June 2019 parliamentary elections, a number of opposition politicians and individuals got inspired by new legislation, which allowed both proportional representation and single-member constituencies (decided by a “first-past-the-post” or majoritarian election). The local leadership promised more freedom for electoral campaigning and organized televised debates. Ninety-nine candidates applied to stand in the elections for single-member constituencies, but only 39 received approval from the CEC to register. No appeals in the courts overcame the CEC’s decisions.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0 / 4
South Ossetia’s institutions are almost entirely dependent on economic and political support from Moscow. There are few avenues for people to meaningfully participate in political processes if they wish to advocate for interests that fall outside of the narrow political spectrum defined by Russia and the territory’s Russian-aligned authorities.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
While the South Ossetian government includes several women ministers, the interests of women and minority groups are not represented politically. Most ethnic Georgian residents have either declined or have been denied the ability to participate in elections.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
The ability of elected officials to determine and implement policy is heavily influenced by the Russian government. A sweeping 2015 treaty on alliance and integration between Russia and South Ossetia closely integrates the territory’s defense, security, and customs mechanisms with those of Russia, charging Moscow with protection of South Ossetia’s borders; it is binding for 25 years with the possibility of extension. Russian aid comprises almost the entirety of South Ossetia’s budget. Media reports detailing the increasingly important role of South Ossetia as a conduit for funds from Russia to the breakaway territories of eastern Ukraine continue to surface; details of the reports reflect the ability of Russian authorities to shape South Ossetia’s financial and business regulations and infrastructure to serve their own purposes.
According to private emails leaked in 2016 that were apparently tied to senior Kremlin adviser Vladislav Surkov, Moscow mandated 13 working groups to review legislation drafted by the authorities in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s de facto capital, and had a timetable for the bills’ approval by the territory’s legislature. Some of Bibilov’s ministerial appointments reflect a long trend in the territory to nominate Russian citizens to key roles, including the territory’s security services.
Like his predecessor, President Bibilov has spoken repeatedly of formally uniting the territory with Russia’s North Ossetia–Alania or joining the Russian Federation as a separate region.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Official corruption is widespread in South Ossetia, and there is little to no systematic attempt to fight it.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Due in part to the significant level of Russian influence on domestic politics and decision-making, South Ossetia’s government does not operate with transparency. Officials have not identified a lack of transparency as a policy priority.
|Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group?
During the 2008 war, Ossetian forces seized or razed property in previously Georgian-controlled villages, and large numbers of ethnic Georgians fled the fighting. Authorities in South Ossetia have since barred ethnic Georgians from returning to the territory unless they renounce their Georgian citizenship and accept Russian passports. Of approximately 20,000 ethnic Georgians displaced from their homes in South Ossetia, most have not been able to return. However, conditions for local residents have largely stabilized since the war, particularly due to the absence of open conflict across the administrative line separating the territory from Georgia. Nevertheless, the weeks-long restrictions of movement between the territory and Georgia proper in January and September 2019 provoked a temporary rush of dozens of fleeing ethnic Georgians fearful of permanent closure of crossing points.
|Are there free and independent media?
Local media, including the television channel Ir, the newspapers Yuzhnaya Osetiya and Respublika, and the online portal Res, are almost entirely controlled by the authorities. Self-censorship is pervasive, and defamation charges are often employed against critical media. An increasing number of residents rely on online outlets for news and other information, and foreign media, including broadcasts from Russia and Georgia, remain accessible. The local version of Russian news portal Sputnik, accessible in both Russian and Ossetian, is increasingly popular.
The authorities continued to press charges against Tamara Mearakishvili, a journalist and activist who works with Georgian and international media outlets including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In July 2019, the South Ossetian Supreme Court dismissed three previous criminal accusations against Mearakishvili (concerning illegal acquisition of documents and defamation). However, Mearakishvili stated that authorities continued to harass her, demanding her imprisonment. In September, she staged a three-day hunger strike, demanding the South Ossetian government meet with mediators of the Geneva International Discussions (GID).
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
While the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian, there is a sizeable Muslim community. Followers of Russian Orthodoxy and Ossetian neopaganism also inhabit the territory. Some property of the Georgian Orthodox Church is controlled by the South Ossetian Orthodox Church (called the Eparchy).
In 2017, South Ossetia’s de facto Supreme Court outlawed Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization; the group had been banned in Russia earlier that year.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
The government exerts strong influence over the education system. In 2017, the ministry of education began to phase out Georgian-language education, and this process continued throughout 2019.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Private discussion is constrained by the sensitivity of certain topics, particularly the territory’s geopolitical standing. Speaking of the property rights and expulsion of the Georgian population is assumed to attract unwanted attention.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Residents occasionally demonstrate against environmental degradation, the sluggish pace of postwar reconstruction, animal rights, and, more rarely, overtly political grievances. However, freedom of assembly is strictly limited. Participants in unsanctioned gatherings risk being charged with crimes, and authorities have responded to demonstrations by closing roads and deploying security forces to patrol.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that operate in the territory are subject to government influence and, by extension, influence from Russia. Legislative amendments in 2014 increased the oversight capacity of authorities over NGO activity, subjecting organizations that receive foreign funding to broader and more frequent reporting requirements and branding them “foreign partners.” Through 2019, there were six organizations that officially received funding from Russia and one taking part in a United Nations–run project. NGOs engaged in conflict resolution and reconciliation are smeared by the authorities and progovernment media as agents of Tbilisi or western intelligence services. In 2019, 108 NGOs were registered in South Ossetia.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Trade unions in South Ossetia largely defer to the policies of the separatist government. Conflict with Georgia has left trade unions weak and geographically divided.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
South Ossetia’s judiciary is not independent. The justice system is manipulated to punish perceived opponents of the separatist leadership. In July 2019, after more than a year in pretrial detention, a local court sentenced former official Georgy Kabisov, accused of embezzlement of state funds, to seven years in prison. The case is seen as highly political due to personal problems between Kabisov and President Bibilov. Later in July, the court launched a closed-door investigation into the case of an official in the presidential administration, Sergey Lipin, as well as Lipin’s wife and two administrators of the local computer center: all were accused of state espionage for the Georgian government. Local observers spoke about a possible “witch hunt” sponsored by leadership in an attempt to prevent protests after the 2019 parliamentary elections.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
South Ossetia uses a modified version of the Russian criminal code. Government allies reportedly continue to violate the law with relative impunity. Russian prosecutors have attempted to curb malfeasance by local officials, but the Russian court system itself remains deeply flawed.
Criminal prosecutions are used to punish activists and individuals that question or inconvenience the authorities, as reflected by multiple criminal accusations made against the journalist and activist Mearakishvili. In April 2019, a Russian businessman, Kurban Buganov, who had received no repayment for massive public works projects completed over the previous decade, became the focus of a criminal investigation by the office of the Prosecutor General, despite no evidence of wrongdoing. The investigation seems to be a means for the South Ossetian government to avoid payment for the public infrastructure projects completed by Buganov’s company.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Victims of human rights violations committed during the 2008 conflict have few avenues for legal recourse. Physical abuse and poor conditions are reportedly common in prisons and detention centers. At court sessions, prisoners often speak about floods and freezing conditions at an old building that was built decades ago merely as a temporary detention center, and not as a long-term prison. In October 2019, 56 inmates of the only local prison located in Tskhinvali went on hunger strike with the demand for better food and more walking hours. Negotiations with the local justice minister ended with the prisoners being physically assaulted, which was filmed by CCTV cameras and leaked on social media.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Discrimination against ethnic Georgians continues. Reports of arbitrary discrimination and detention of ethnic Georgians continue to arise. There are no initiatives to support the rights of LGBT+ people.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Restrictions on freedom of movement between South Ossetia and Georgia proper were tightened in 2019. In contrast to previous years, border crossing points closed with no prior notification and for longer periods—crossings were blockaded for several weeks. In January 2019, local security officials cited the need, ostensibly, to prevent spread of an influenza virus in Georgia; they closed crossings until March, an action denounced by European Union, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and United Nations (UN) mediators. In September, a similar closure of border crossings took place as increased tensions with Georgian authorities peaked over the new Georgian police outpost near the South Ossetian administrative boundary line. Some local residents were not able to receive timely emergency health support and attend schools and universities in Georgian towns. As in past years, dozens of Georgian citizens were detained by border guards near the border of Tbilisi-controlled territory and were released after paying a fine. In October, the de facto authorities reported detention of a prominent Tbilisi-based doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili, who reportedly tried to sneak into the territory to help a local resident with a severe health condition. Despite calls from foreign partners and public rallies all over Georgia, the doctor was sentenced to almost two years imprisonment after refusing to plead guilty, but was later pardoned with a special presidential decree.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
The territory’s political and military situation has negatively affected protections of property rights, particularly for residents close to the administrative border. The separatist authorities have consistently refused to countenance the return of ethnic Georgians expelled from their homes before or during the 2008 war.
Small businesses risk being seized or subjected to predatory behavior by larger, more powerful corporations.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
While no laws officially regulate individuals’ public appearance, statements by public officials reflect intolerance for behavior that deviates from the territory’s conservative norms. No laws or government programs specifically protect victims of domestic violence.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
In early 2019, local leadership launched a new subsidiary loans program, which did not attract much interest from South Ossetian small businesses due to the lack of guarantees for the independence of long-term commercial operations. Populations living along the administrative border with Georgia face additional economic uncertainty due to divisions created by shifting and uncertain borders.
On South Ossetia
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Global Freedom Score12 100 not free