TSKHINVALI, Georgia – Voters in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia cast ballots Sunday in a referendum that separatist leaders hope will reaffirm their bid for independence, although Georgia has warned that it will only increase tension.
The United States and Europe, which support Georgia's pro-Western aspirations and back its territorial integrity, are ignoring the vote — the second such plebiscite since the region broke away from central government control in a war 14 years ago.
Russia, which is in the midst of a bitter diplomatic crisis with Georgia, has stopped short of recognizing the referendum, but urged Georgia to respect it. The Kremlin has cultivated strong ties with province and indicated that it will closely watch the fate of the disputed U.N.- administered Kosovo province of Serbia, where many seek independence, as a potential precedent.
But Russia denies Georgian allegations that Moscow, which has given most residents of South Ossetia Russian citizenship, is seeking to "annex" the two regions.
Police and security agents were out in force in Tskhinvali, the regional center of the small mountainous province, with armed men in camouflage uniforms on every corner as ethnic music blared through loudspeakers. Most of Tskhinvali's streets were empty.
"Of course I voted for independence — independence and freedom. I want what every normal person wants," said Zoya Chugmazova, a 64-year-old school teacher.
Election officials said that by midday local time 44 percent of voters had cast their ballots, short of the 50 percent plus one vote minimum required to make the vote legitimate. Election commission spokeswoman Irina Dzhagayeva said 55,000 people were eligible to vote.
A simultaneous vote for the regional leadership was also under way, and incumbent Eduard Kokoity was expected to win overwhelmingly.
South Ossetia has run its own affairs without international recognition since it broke away from the Georgian government in the 1991-1992 war, which killed more than 1,000 people and displaced tens of thousands. The region is dotted by ethnic Ossetian and ethnic Georgian villages like a chessboard; settlements are closely guarded by armed separatist forces and Georgian police.
The plebiscite — in which voters will be asked whether they support independence and seek international recognition — is expected to receive overwhelming approval, since ethnic Ossetians make up the majority of the province's population. However, a similar 1992 referendum proclaiming the province's independence went unnoticed by the international community, leaving the region in limbo.
Kokoity was met with folk dances and traditional offerings of bread and cheese as he voted. He later told reporters that he was in such a good mood that he felt like dancing.
"Today we vote for independence, for peace, stability and a civilized way of solving our conflict," he said. "We're stretching our hands to Russia and Europe so that they renounce the policy of double standards. We will prove that we are right."
Georgian villages in the region, whose residents number some 14,000, were holding an alternative plebiscite and an alternative election for the regional leader. The Tbilisi-based Georgian government, which does not formally recognize either vote, hopes the renegade election will demonstrate a rift in the separatists' camp.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power in 2004 following a popular uprising, has vowed to bring South Ossetia and another separatist province, Abkhazia, to heel. He has put forward a new peace plan that would decrease Russia's role in the region and focus on demilitarization and reconstruction.
The separatists, who seek eventually to join Russia, have refused to consider it, asking that Tbilisi first sign a nonaggression pact. Separatist leaders and Russian officials accuse Georgia of preparing to take the two regions by force — claims Tbilisi denies.