MOSCOW — Residents of South Ossetia trooped to the polls Sunday in the first election since Russia and Georgia fought a brief and bitter war over the breakaway republic's fate.
Residents in the rebel territory, which was purged of Georgian troops by Russian intervention and recognized as an independent state by Moscow, cast votes for a 34-seat parliament. Georgia's central government dismissed the balloting as illegal.
"Today's election is a test of our people's maturity, a test of the stability of our democracy," South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity told reporters after he cast his ballot. "We are voting today for an independent South Ossetia though we have close relations with Russia and will continue to strengthen those relations."
Meanwhile, just over the cease-fire line, North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops were wrapping up the final day of war games in Georgia. The military exercises rattled Russian officials, who have condemned the NATO aspirations of former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine as a strategic threat and an insulting challenge to Russian power. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the war games "muscle flexing."
Both the election and the war games were sharp reminders of the unhealed rift between Moscow and the West over last year's war in Georgia -- and a visceral illustration of the layers of unresolved tensions still simmering in the Caucasus.
When the Georgian military launched a large-scale operation to reassert control over South Ossetia last summer, Moscow deployed a crushing force of tanks and warplanes over the border to drive the troops back and temporarily seize a large swath of Georgia. Once a cease-fire was declared, Moscow recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia, as independent nations.
Since then, the rebel regions have drawn closer to Moscow. Under a security treaty struck between the Kremlin and the breakaway republics, Russian troops deployed this spring along the cease-fire lines. Moscow says the guards are helping the territories control their "borders" with Georgia.
The Georgian government has decried the deployment as a dangerous provocation and an attempt to annex land that is rightfully part of Georgia. Meanwhile, the Georgian government is facing mounting pressures from within. Opposition demonstrators are demanding the resignation of U.S.-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili, flooding the streets of the capital with weeks of protests. Scattered bursts of violence have erupted as nerves fray under the prolonged demonstrations.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia are emotional issues in Georgia, which is now home to refugees from conflicts in both places. The sight of the two territories marching ahead as self-declared countries under the patronage of powerful Russia has led many Georgians to criticize Saakashvili for bringing the country into a losing war.