A pro-Russian former KGB officer appeared set on Sunday to win a presidential election run-off in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, where Moscow is seeking to re-assert control.
Preliminary results announced by the election commission showed Leonid Tibilov, 60, leading human rights ombudsman David Sanakoyev with about 55.8 percent of votes against his rival's 41.3 after 67 percent of the ballots had been counted.
The tiny region of about 30,000 people declared independence after a 2008 war between Russia and Georgia but remains heavily dependent on Moscow's financial help and military protection amid growing dissatisfaction over how funds are spent.
We will develop the relationship with Russia in all areas. We are aiming to make an old dream about the reunification of South and North Ossetia a reality, Tibilov told reporters at a polling station in the region's capital Tskhinvali.
North Ossetia is part of Russia and Tibilov's call implies a de facto unification of the mountainous region with Russia, a move which analysts say Moscow is unlikely to make for now in order to avoid antagonising the West.
Russia has spent about $1 billion supporting the impoverished region since the five-day war, which took place mostly on its territory. Many of its residents complain they have seen little sign of the money coming through.
Tibilov, who headed South Ossetia's security agency in the 1990s and is praised for his modest lifestyle, acknowledged in the course of his campaign that funds had been misappropriated and promised to crack down on corruption.
Russia uses its influence on South Ossetia and another breakaway region of Georgia, Abkhazia, to keep U.S.-backed Georgia's aspirations of joining NATO in check. Its entry to the Western military alliance is seen as problematic as long as the areas remain disputed territory.
Georgia says the South Ossetian vote is illegitimate. South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs with Russian backing since the early 1990s, is recognised as independent by only a handful of nations, including Russia.
A previous vote in South Ossetia in November was declared invalid after a candidate backed by the Kremlin and outgoing president Eduard Kokoity lost the poll and accused his opponent of violations. Neither candidate took part in the rerun.
(Reporting by Kazbek Basayev in Tskhinvali; writing by Gleb Bryanski; editing by Andrew Roche)