Two candidates who have voiced different hopes for Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region competed in a run-off election on Sunday for the presidency of the small territory that was the focus of a five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.
Anatoly Bibilov, the region's emergencies minister, and Alla Dzhioyeva, its former education minister, are vying to become South Ossetia's first new president since Russia recognised it as an independent state after the war with pro-Western Georgia.
A run-off was required because none of the candidates received a majority of votes in the first round on November 13. Dzhioyeva and Bibilov, seen as Moscow's favoured candidate, came in neck-and-neck with just under 25 percent each.
Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific nation of Nauru have also recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions that have governed themselves with Russian backing since separatist wars with Tbilisi after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Other countries consider them part of Georgia, which has dismissed the South Ossetian election as illegitimate.
NATO aspirant Georgia and Western nations accuse Russia of violating a European Union-brokered cease-fire that ended the 2008 war by maintaining a large military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The winner will replace Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestling champion whose second term is expiring.
The outcome of the election is unlikely to alter South Ossetia's dependence on Russia as an economic lifeline and military protector of the landlocked region with a population of about 30,000.
Bibilov, 41, and Dzhioyeva, 62, share pro-Kremlin sympathies and an anti-Georgian stance.
But while Bibilov has said South Ossetia should become part of Russia by unifying with North Ossetia, a Russian province across the border whose population is mostly ethnic Ossetian, Dzhioyeva says South Ossetia should be independent.
Despite the position of Bibilov, who is openly backed by Moscow, analysts say Russia is unlikely to absorb South Ossetia anytime soon because it would risk a potentially explosive dispute with the West.
Moscow prefers to use South Ossetia and Abkhazia as levers of influence in the South Caucasus, a vital corridor for the supply of Caspian Sea region oil and natural gas to Europe.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last week that Moscow had prevented NATO from expanding further eastward by sending forces into Georgia in 2008, when they repelled a Georgian offensive aimed at regaining control of South Ossetia.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Sophie Hares)