South Ossetia* | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Ossetia*

South Ossetia*

Not Free
10/100
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 of 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. 

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • Several political parties were prevented from registering, or complained of new bureaucratic hurdles to reregistration, in advance of 2019 legislative elections. Ruling party members made statements discouraging the formation and activity of opposition parties.
  • Harassment of the territory’s few independent journalists continued. In February, security services searched the office of Irina Kelekhsayeva after she published an article detailing strained relations between President Anatoly Bibilov and a Russian investor, and her editors at the Ir online newspaper later asked her to resign. In November, journalist and civil society activist Tamara Mearakishvili said she faced another round of criminal charges, but that she had not yet been informed of the exact allegations.
  • In February, South Ossetian authorities detained three Georgian citizens on charges of “genocide” allegedly committed against South Ossetian civilians during the 2008 war. One of them, Archil Tatunashvili, died in custody shortly after his arrest, prompting international condemnation. The other two were released shortly afterward.
  • A May report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, described a quiet increase in informal trade between South Ossetia and Georgia—offering new economic opportunities, but also opportunities for corruption.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 2 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 2 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

Although South Ossetia holds elections 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.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4

Current members of South Ossetia’s unicameral 34-member parliament were elected through a proportional voting system. Legislative elections are not internationally recognized, and the extent of Russian influence in the territory’s politics precludes truly competitive contests.

Nevertheless, parliamentary elections held in 2014 were considered an improvement from previous ones. Unlike in 2009, in which only three parties were able to participate, candidates from nine parties succeeded in registering in 2014. The opposition United Ossetia, led by Bibilov, won 20 seats, followed by the Unity of the People party with 6 seats. Smaller parties captured the remainder. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 2019.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4

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 reportedly continue to restrict voting rights of remaining ethnic Georgian residents of South Ossetia. Russian political influence continues to call into question the independence of the CEC.

In a referendum held alongside the 2017 presidential election, over 80 percent of voters approved adding “The State of Alania” to the territory’s name. The move was viewed as a precursor to potential constitutional changes to allow union with North Ossetia–Alania, which is a federal subject of Russia.

In 2017, President Bibilov declared that the 2019 legislative elections would be conducted by a mixed proportional and majoritarian system, instead of the fully proportional system that is currently in place. The decision was made without public input.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 2 / 16

B1.       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 / 4

Moscow exerts a decisive influence over politics and governance, in effect 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. However, figures from United Ossetia—which controls the de facto Ministry of Justice which in turn which oversees the party registration processes—have more recently indicated their intention to reduce the number of political parties ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections. In March 2018, parliament speaker Pyotr Gassiev stated that the territory’s 15 registered parties were excessive, and in July, Bibilov warned against the formation of opposition parties.

Attempts to register two new political parties (Towers, and the Alanian Union) failed in 2018, while the head of the opposition New Ossetia party has complained of new bureaucratic hurdles in reregistering existing parties before elections. The efforts appear to amount to an attempt to ensure that the 2019 vote favors United Ossetia.

B2.       Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1 / 4

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.

B3.       Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4

The functioning of 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.

B4.       Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4

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.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 0 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4

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.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4

Official corruption is widespread in South Ossetia, and there is little to no systematic attempt to fight it.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4

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.

ADDITIONAL DISCRETIONARY POLITICAL RIGHTS QUESTION:

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 / 0

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.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 8 / 60

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 3 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4

Local media, including the newspapers Yuzhnaya Osetiya and Respublika and online portals Res and Ir, and 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.

Harassment of the territory’s few critical and independent journalists continued throughout 2018. In February, security services searched the offices of Irina Kelekhsayeva after she published an article detailing the strained relations between Bibilov and a Russian investor. Kelekhsayeva’s editors at Ir then asked her to resign, allegedly under pressure from the authorities.

The authorities continued to press charges against Tamara Mearakishvili, a journalist and civil society activist who works with international media outlets including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). While a district court dismissed three previous criminal accusations against Mearakishvili (concerning illegal acquisition of documents and defamation), she stated that authorities continued to harass her, and staged a hunger strike in July in protest. A fourth criminal case was opened against her in November 2018; at the time she said she had not been informed of the details of the charge.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1 / 4

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).

The Eparchy has come under increasing pressure from Bibilov and others to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. In April 2018, South Ossetian border guards confiscated the South Ossetian passport of the Eparchy’s Bishop Ambrosi as he attempted to enter the territory from Russia, and refused him entry. Ambrosi had opposed the merger with the Russian Orthodox Church.

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.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4

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 2018. Teachers with no knowledge of Georgian have been dispatched to the Georgian-majority Leningor Region, one of whom attempted to prevent students and staff from speaking Georgian among themselves.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4

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: 1 / 12

E1.       Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4

Residents occasionally demonstrate against environmental degradation, the sluggish pace of postwar reconstruction, 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.

E2.       Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4

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 local authorities over NGO activity, subjecting organizations receiving foreign funding to broader and more frequent reporting requirements and branding them “foreign agents;” it is unclear whether, or how, the provision applies to the numerous NGOs that draw 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. In 2018 the South Ossetian state news agency reported that many NGOs had disbanded.

E3.       Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0 / 4

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: 1 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4

South Ossetia’s judiciary is not independent. The justice system is manipulated to punish perceived opponents of the separatist leadership, as reflected, among other cases, by those against journalist Mearakishvili.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4

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.

Justice structures are undermined by a lack of qualified lawyers. In one high-profile case in 2017, a colonel arrested amid a professed anticorruption campaign by Bibilov was allegedly refused access to his lawyer and told by the local KGB that they were in charge and that there was no legal recourse. He remained in prison at the end of 2018.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4

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.

In February 2018, South Ossetian authorities detained three Georgian citizens on charges of “genocide” allegedly committed against South Ossetian civilians during the 2008 war. One of them, Archil Tatunashvili, died in custody shortly after his arrest, with South Ossetian officials claiming that he had suffered a heart attack while attempting to attack a police officer. His death prompted a rash of statements from democratic governments and European international organizations that ranged from grave concern to outrage and condemnation. South Ossetian officials for a time refused to return his body to his family in Georgia, though eventually relented; the two men detained with Tatunashvili were released shortly after his death.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4

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 (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people in this very conservative society.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 3 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4

Restrictions on freedom of movement between South Ossetia and Georgia were tightened in 2018, though travel to Russia remains largely unimpeded. As in past years, dozens of Georgian citizens were detained by border guards near the line of contact with Tbilisi-controlled territory and released after paying a fine. In November, the territory’s parliament passed a new law increasing the fines for illegal border crossing by nearly four times. Several South Ossetian officials stated in 2018 that they aimed to finally close the one remaining border checkpoint with Georgia, prompting deepening concern among the territory’s ethnic Georgians. In late December, authorities announced that a special pass issued by a security committee would be required necessary to cross the border from Georgia.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 0 / 4

The territory’s political and military situation has negatively affected protections for 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.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

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.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0 / 4

Although Bibilov promised an investment program and a rise in social spending in late 2018, there remains very little economic opportunity in South Ossetia. Populations living along the administrative border with Georgia face additional economic uncertainty due to divisions created by shifting and uncertain borders.

However, a 2018 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, described a quiet increase in informal trade between South Ossetia and Georgia, some of which has offered greater economic opportunity to displaced and other disadvantaged people. ICG attributed the trade, which is facilitated by the single road link between South Ossetia and Georgia, to increased demand for food and consumer goods in South Ossetia amid economic struggles in Russia. The report noted that the informal nature of the exchanges has also created avenues for corruption.

Explanatory Note: 

*Indicates a territory as opposed to an independent country.