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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ruling Party Wins Most Seats in S. Ossetian Vote

TBILISI, Georgia -- The ruling party in South Ossetia won half the parliament seats in the first election since Russia drove Georgian forces out of the breakaway Georgian province, electoral officials said Monday.

The European Union labeled the election illegitimate and called it a setback in efforts to resolve the disputes plaguing Georgia following last August's war, which left Russia and its separatist allies solidly in control of South Ossetia and another rebellious province, Abkhazia.

The results of Sunday's vote could strengthen the longtime Moscow-backed regional leader Eduard Kokoity, who faces accusation of corruption and misrule from opponents.

In televised comments, Kokoity said that "our state has passed yet another test of its maturity."

The Unity party, which is loyal to Kokoity, won about 46 percent of the vote and will receive 17 of the 34 seats in the separatist region's legislature if the results of a preliminary count are confirmed, Central Election Commission chief Bella Pliyeva said.

The People's party will get nine seats and the Communists eight seats, the election commission said. The most vocal opposition party in the field of four on the ballot, Fatherland, fell just shy of the 7 percent mark needed to win parliament seats, it said.

Critics of Kokoity, a former wrestler, claim that he stifles dissent and intimidates challengers with threats of violence. They say Russian aid money for restoring infrastructure destroyed in the five-day war has disappeared and had called for a boycott of the election.

Pliyeva said turnout among 52,000 potential voters -- including about 20,000 who live outside South Ossetia and were able to vote across the border in Russia's North Ossetia province and in Moscow -- was nearly 82 percent.

All political forces in South Ossetia favor independence from Georgia.

Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio cited an opposition figure, Albert Dzhusoyev, as claiming Sunday that authorities were pressuring people to vote. Separatist government spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva denied that and said Dzhusoyev was not in South Ossetia.

South Ossetia broke from Georgian government control in an early 1990s war as the Soviet Union collapsed.

The EU's Czech presidency said the 27-nation group "does not accept the legality" of the South Ossetian election or its results.

"The holding of such elections is illegitimate and represents a setback in the search for a peaceful and lasting settlement of the situation in Georgia," it said in a statement. "The EU reiterates its firm support for sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders."