South Ossetia*

Not Free
11
100
PR Political Rights 2 40
CL Civil Liberties 9 60
Last Year's Score & Status
10 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.
* Indicates a territory as opposed to an independent country.

header1 Note

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.

header2 Overview

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 most 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 Moscow, which 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.

header3 Key Developments in 2021

  • In April, lawmakers rejected the government’s first candidate to succeed Prosecutor General Uruzmag Jagaev, whose term ended that month. Another candidate, Magomed Bagayev, was accepted in May.
  • Border crossings with Georgia proper remained closed during the year, while crossings with Russia were largely open. However, residents seeking medical care had less difficulty crossing the de facto border.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

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 April 2017 presidential contest, former military leader Anatoly Bibilov was elected to a five-year term, defeating incumbent Leonid Tibilov. 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 Moscow and pro-Russian authorities.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1.001 4.004

In June 2019, residents of South Ossetia elected lawmakers through a new voting system: Half of the 34 seats went to political parties via proportional representation while the other half was designated to single-member constituencies. Legislative elections are not internationally recognized, and Russian influence precludes truly competitive contests.

The 2019 elections yielded some positive developments. In contrast to previous years, political parties reported few problems with registration, campaigned in the region, and took part in televised debates. However, more than half of the candidates for the single-member constituencies, mainly private individuals, were unable to register. The United Ossetia party of President Bibilov won 14 seats, followed by Unity of the People (UP) with 5 and the Nykhas movement with 4. Smaller parties captured the remainder.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1.001 4.004

According to electoral laws, candidates must have permanently resided in South Ossetia for 10 years. Russian influence undermines the independence of the Central Election Commission (CEC). New commissioners were selected in August 2021; according to a preliminary agreement on the CEC’s makeup, two belonged to United Ossetia. The Communist, For Justice, Nykhas, People’s Party, and UP factions each received one commissioner.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 1.001 4.004

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. However, a number of new parties have registered over the past decade, including United Ossetia, which has governed the territory since winning the most seats in the 2014 elections. United Ossetia controls the local Ministry of Justice and thus oversees the party registration processes. The body has inspected party-member lists, but upon identifying mistakes has allowed parties to resolve them without negative consequences for elections.

However, individual candidates have faced difficulties registering with the CEC. Only 39 of the 99 candidates seeking single-member seats ahead of the 2019 polls were approved by the commission.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1.001 4.004

While Bibilov, the opposition candidate, successfully challenged the incumbent in the 2017 presidential election, the success or failure of opposition politicians is largely determined by Moscow.

Opposition lawmakers have gained some influence following the 2020 death of local resident Inal Dzhabiev and subsequent rallies that called for Bibilov’s resignation. Between September 2020 and March 2021, they largely boycotted parliamentary sessions. Opposition lawmakers also called for the resignation of Prosecutor General Uruzmag Jagaev, whose term ended in April. Lawmakers rejected Bibilov’s first choice to succeed Jagaev, though candidate Magomed Bagayev was accepted in May.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 0.000 4.004

South Ossetia’s institutions are almost entirely dependent on economic and political support from Moscow. People whose political interests fall outside the narrow spectrum defined by Moscow, territorial authorities, and their private business interests cannot meaningfully participate in the political process.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0.000 4.004

While the territorial 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.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

The ability of elected officials to determine and implement policy is heavily influenced by Moscow. A sweeping 2015 treaty 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. Russian aid comprises almost the entirety of South Ossetia’s budget. Bibilov has spoken repeatedly of formally uniting the territory with Russia’s North Ossetia–Alania or joining the Russian Federation as a separate region.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0.000 4.004

Official corruption is widespread in South Ossetia. There is little systematic effort to fight such behavior, though opposition lawmakers have sought to debate the issue in the parliament. In July 2020, the parliament adopted and the president signed a law that introduced annual declarations for all civil servants and restrictions on conflicts of interest. The law’s adoption was delayed for five years, however.

In April 2021, two lawmakers reported that South Ossetian officials may have participated in a smuggling operation along with Russian customs officers. In May, parliament speaker Alan Tadtayev denied the accusation.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

South Ossetia’s government is not transparent. In September 2021, opposition lawmakers sought a no-confidence vote after the territorial government declined to disclose the results of an audit; the vote narrowly failed.

Add Q
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? -2.00-2

During the 2008 war, South Ossetian forces seized or razed property in previously Georgian-controlled villages, and large numbers of ethnic Georgians fled the fighting. Territorial authorities have since barred ethnic Georgians from returning 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.

Conditions for remaining local residents have largely stabilized since the war, particularly due to the absence of open conflict across the administrative line separating South Ossetia from Georgia. The weeks-long restrictions of movement between the territory and Georgia proper in during much of 2019 prompted dozens of ethnic Georgians to flee, fearing the permanent closure of crossing points. A similar outflow of local Georgians took place in January 2020, when region’s leadership agreed to open crossings with Georgia proper for 10 days: people left for Georgia, many due to hardships and shortages caused by border closures. Ethnic Georgians who sought to return to their homes in South Ossetia in 2021 were largely unsuccessful.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

Local media, including television channel Ir, newspapers Yuzhnaya Osetiya and Respublika, and 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. 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.

Social media platforms are popular among South Ossetia’s residents, who maintain public and private groups to discuss politics and everyday problems. Some discussions attract lawmakers and officials. Territorial residents mainly use slow and expensive mobile services to access the internet.

In January 2021, Sergei Kabisov, a territorial defense official, physically attacked a blogger based in North Ossetia–Alania for criticizing Bibilov. North Ossetia–Alania officials charged Kabisov with forcibly obstruction of the blogger’s activities in April. In September, Vitaly Denisov, the editor of Sputnik’s South Ossetia edition, claimed that a gas line in his home was intentionally damaged. Several days later, Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russian state-run television network RT, claimed that someone attempted to poison Denisov. Territorial prosecutors opened an investigation into the damaged gas line soon after.

In 2021, authorities continued to pursue a legal case against Tamara Mearakishvili, a blogger and activist who works with Georgian and international media outlets including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Mearakishvili had originally faced charges including libel in 2017. In 2020, the Supreme Court sent Mearakishvili’s case to the first instance court for retrial, though the Supreme Court had cleared her of libel. In April 2021, a Tskhinvali court returned the case to prosecutors because it still included the libel charge. In May, prosecutors offered to end the case due to a statute of limitations; Mearakishvili declined, stating her desire to clear her name.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1.001 4.004

Most residents are Orthodox Christian, though a sizeable Muslim community exists. 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). Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned as an “extremist” organization since 2017.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

The government exerts strong influence over the education system. The Education Ministry has been working to phase out Georgian-language education since 2017.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

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.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 2.002 4.004

Freedom of assembly is restricted. While residents occasionally demonstrate against environmental degradation, the sluggish pace of postwar reconstruction, animal rights, and, more rarely, overtly political grievances, participants in unsanctioned gatherings risk criminal charges. Authorities have responded to demonstrations by closing roads and deploying security forces.

Protests held in 2020 over the death of Inal Dzhabiev, who was accused of participating in a gun attack on the interior minister’s car, were tolerated by authorities. However, the territorial government dismissed Deputy Health Minister Agunda Plieva from her post after she spoke at a rally that year. In March 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that her dismissal was legal, though Plieva vowed to appeal.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that operate in the territory are subject to government influence. Legislative amendments in 2014 increased authorities’ oversight capacity over NGOs, subjecting organizations that receive foreign funding to broader and more frequent reporting requirements and branding them “foreign partners.” In recent years, a handful of organizations have officially received funding from Russia. NGOs engaged in conflict resolution and reconciliation are smeared by the authorities and progovernment media as agents of Tbilisi or Western intelligence services.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0.000 4.004

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.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

South Ossetia’s judiciary is not independent. The justice system is manipulated to punish perceived opponents of the separatist leadership. In 2019, a court handed former official Georgy Kabisov an eight-year prison term on embezzlement-related accusations. The case is seen as highly political due to personal problems between Kabisov and President Bibilov. In February 2021, a court denied Kabisov’s parole application after prison authorities accused him of keeping an internet router in his cell.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0.000 4.004

South Ossetia uses a modified version of the Russian criminal code. Government allies reportedly violate the law with relative impunity.

Criminal prosecutions are used to punish activists and individuals that question or inconvenience the authorities. By June 2021, prosecutors accused forensic expert Zarina Dzagoeva, who examined the body of Inal Dzhabiev in 2020, of knowingly providing false information.

The territory’s judiciary does not oversee transparent and fair investigations into cases related to border crossings between South Ossetia and Georgia proper. Territorial residents and ethnic Georgians from Georgia proper risk arrest for crossing; while most individuals are fined, some face arbitrary detention.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0.000 4.004

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 originally intended to serve as a temporary detention center.

In 2020, after Inal Dzhabiev died while in police custody, photographs of his corpse that circulated on social media depicted extensive bruises. Two detainees who were implicated alongside Dzhabiev in a gun attack on the interior minister’s vehicle were released after promising not to leave South Ossetia; one spent weeks undergoing medical care after their release. At least eight police officers were detained on charges related to Dzhabiev’s death, though four were released from custody in June 2021.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

Ethnic Georgians face continued discrimination. There are no initiatives to support the rights of LGBT+ people.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1.001 4.004

Restrictions on freedom of movement between South Ossetia and Georgia proper, which the territorial government and Moscow consider a “state border,” remain in place. Russian border guards have installed barbed wire and other obstructions to limit travel. The crossings were closed for most of 2021, in part due to COVID-19. Crossings into Russia remained open throughout the year.

Although the territory’s security services grant few requests to cross into Georgia proper, they allowed people with emergency health problems to do so in 2021. In 2020, the Georgian government reported that at least 16 people had died because they could not cross to seek medical assistance in a timely fashion.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because in contrast with the previous year, South Ossetians were able to use border crossings into Russia and encountered fewer impediments when traveling for medical care.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 0.000 4.004

The territory’s political and military situation has negatively affected protections of property rights, particularly for residents close to the administrative line with Georgia proper. Small businesses risk being seized or subjected to predatory behavior by larger, more powerful corporations.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

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.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0.000 4.004

Economic opportunity has been limited by the territory’s unrecognized status, among other reasons. Populations living along the administrative border with Georgia proper face economic uncertainty due to divisions created by shifting and uncertain borders.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    11 100 not free