A pro-Russian former KGB officer has won the presidency in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia and suggested he would push for the tiny territory to join Russia.
A mountainous region of about 30,000 people, South Ossetia has been at the heart of Georgia's bitter relations with Russia since breaking from Georgian control in a war in the 1990s.
Moscow recognized it as an independent nation after a brief war with Georgia in 2008. Internationally it is only recognized by Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Pacific nation of Nauru.
The victory of a Kremlin-backed candidate is certain to bolster Moscow's influence in the region as it seeks to complicate aspirations by U.S.-backed Georgia to join NATO.
However, some observers on both sides say events could drag the two countries into another war.
According to results released on Monday, Leonid Tibilov won more than 54 percent of the vote in Sunday's presidential runoff against regional human rights ombudsman David Sanakoyev.
Georgia's government dismissed the election as illegitimate, the BBC reported, calling South Ossetia "occupied" territory and saying it would urge the international community to join its criticism.
"Our position will be tough as ever and Tbilisi will address the international community for reaction," Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze said.
Russia has a military base in South Ossetia and has spent about $1 billion supporting the impoverished region since the 2008 conflict.
"We will develop the relationship with Russia in all areas. We are aiming to make an old dream about the reunification of South and North Ossetia a reality," Tibilov, 60, told reporters on Sunday in the region's capital, Tskhinvali.
North Ossetia is part of Russia and Tibilov's call implies a de facto unification of the region with Russia.
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Analysts however say Moscow is unlikely to push for unification soon in order to avoid antagonising Western powers, which reject South Ossetia's independence claim and would be deeply alarmed by a Russia's physical expansion.
Russia state news agency RIA Novosti said the turnoutin the small Caucasus republic of 72,000 stood at 63 percent two hours before the vote’s end, far above the minimum threshold of 30 percent, the local CEC said.
Kremlin-funded television channel RT quotedGeorgi Gugava, political secretary of Georgia’s opposition Labor Party, as saving Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili is getting ready for a war with Russia.
“The gang that is holding power is ready to continue the [August] 2008 provocation, as a result of which we lost territories and hundreds of people were killed,” it quotes Gugava as saying. “Saakashvili is [planning] a provocation” in order to “involve the Russian Army” in a conflict.
Russia recently described a joint military exercise between U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers as “provocation”, according to Tbilisi English-language news site, Georgia Times.
It said the exercises were aimed at building military relations between the U.S. and the Georgians, who are training to serve in Afghanistan.
Reuters contributed to this report.