An opposition candidate appeared Monday to have won a presidential election in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia, defeating the Kremlin's chosen candidate in the Russia-allied enclave.
Former Education Minister Alla Dzhioyeva was leading with about 57 percent of Sunday's run-off vote against 40 percent for Emergencies Minister Anatoly Bibilov with ballots from 74 of the 85 precincts counted, the South Ossetian election commission said.
Both candidates had called for close ties with Russia.
Bibilov, who had the support of Russia's dominant pro-Kremlin party, refused to concede and complained to a court about alleged violations.
Bibilov was endorsed by outgoing separatist leader Eduard Kokoity, a two-time president who declared South Ossetia's independence following the brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the province.
After the conflict, Moscow expanded its military presence in the South Caucasus region located between the Caspian and Black seas and pledged to restore South Ossetia's economy and infrastructure.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia's central government during a war in the early 1990s, and many here hoped the declaration of independence would bring international recognition and economic development to the province of 60,000 people, which relies heavily on agriculture and Russian aid.
But living standards deteriorated rapidly due to economic isolation and sanctions from Georgia, while only four countries _ Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the South Pacific island nation of Nauru _ have recognized South Ossetian as an independent country.
Critics accused Kokoity's government of embezzling Russian aid, while thousands of South Ossetians continue to live in half-destroyed houses and apartment buildings with irregular water and electricity supplies.
Dzhioyeva pledged to fight corruption and make the process of distributing Russian aid transparent.
Both candidates won some 25 percent of the vote in the first round of the election two weeks ago.
An expert on the region said that Bibilov's loss showed the limits of Russia's influence.
"Despite its status as a great power, Russia cannot install the candidate it needs in a tiny unrecognized republic whose dependence on Moscow's will is 100 percent," Pavel Svyatenkov was quoted as saying by the Kommersant daily on Monday.
Associated Press writers Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed to this report.