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Saturday, November 11, 2006

S.Ossetians to vote for independence in referendum

TSKHINVALI, Georgia, Nov 11 (Reuters) - People in Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia strung up banners and built polling booths on Saturday ahead of an independence referendum in which a "yes" vote is virtually guaranteed.

Georgia's government and Western powers have always refused to recognise South Ossetia's self-proclaimed independence after a 1991-1992 war that killed hundreds, and called Sunday's referendum illegal.

But Russia has said the vote's result should be respected and has accused the West of hypocrisy by pressing for Kosovo's independence from Serbia while refusing to respect separatist drives in the former Soviet Union.

In Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital set in the foothills of the Caucasian mountains, it is clear where sentiments lie.

"The United States and the European Union have two standards," 58-year-old Zaira Harebova said as she sowed polling booth curtains together. "They agree to give Kosovo independence but not us."

Harebova earns around $100 a month as a doctor and said life has much improved since South Ossetia threw off Georgian rule.

Around 70,000 people live in South Ossetia. They say they were forcibly absorbed into Georgia by the Soviet Union and that it is now time to break free.

"We absolutely need independence. In culture and economy we are much closer to Russia," Harebova said. "We first want independence, then to merge with North Ossetia (part of the Russian Federation) and then we want to join Russia."


A roadside billboard of Russian President Vladimir Putin dominates the turnoff from the border with Georgia into Tskhinvali. "V.Putin. Our President," it proclaims.

Russian flags flutter next to South Ossetia's white, red and yellow flag on Tskhinvali's dusty streets, people speak Russian and use roubles in the small and basic shops to buy Russian produce.

A handful of Soviet-era cars rumble past the low-rise buildings on the near-empty roads.

Everybody Reuters spoke to and all the banners hanging across the streets and notices on park boards backed independence.

"South Ossetian independence -- a brighter future," one notice said. "Their future is our vote," another explained next to a picture of smiling South Ossetian youth soccer team.

A campaign against independence did not appear to exist.

Sporadic fighting has flared up in the last couple of years since Georgia's pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili increased the rhetoric against its breakaway states.

No Western observers will monitor the referendum, being held alongside a presidential vote in which all say current leader Eduard Kokoity will triumph over his three rivals.

Instead monitors from around the former Soviet Union and Venezuela will ensure there is no foul play. And they are sure of the result.

"It's high time they (the West) recognise our republics," Oleg Gudymo, a lawmaker from Moldova's breakaway province of Transdniestria and an observer in South Ossetia's referendum said. "Of course I support their independence."
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