TSKHINVALI, Georgia (Reuters) - A former KGB chief topped the poll in the first round of voting to become president of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia and now faces a run-off against a human rights ombudsman after Russia's preferred candidate was eliminated.
Leonid Tibilov, who is still widely considered loyal to Moscow after a career with the Soviet security service, won more than 42 percent of votes on Sunday, election officials said.
His opponent on April 8 will be ombudsman David Sanakoyev, 35, who won about 25 percent of votes.
Kremlin favourite Dmitry Medoyev dropped out after polling 24 percent of the votes, but the outcome of the election is unlikely to alter South Ossetia's heavy dependence on Moscow, which fought a five-day war with Georgia in 2008.
Russia uses its influence on South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, to keep U.S.-backed Georgia's aspirations of joining NATO in check. Georgian entry to the alliance seen as problematic while the areas remain disputed territory in the eyes of the United Nations and most of the world community.
"Today's figures show that my candidacy is taken normally. Let's hope the second round confirms this," Tibilov, 59, told reporters in the regional capital, Tskhinvali.
He denied Moscow was behind him but said he would consult Russia before choosing a government if he became president.
The winner will be South Ossetia's first new president since Moscow recognised the small, mountainous region across its southern border as an independent nation after the 2008 war.
Georgia says the vote is illegitimate. South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs with Russian backing since the early 1990s, is recognised as independent by only a handful of nations.
South Ossetia's top court annulled the results of a disputed November presidential poll which showed the winner was former regional education minister Alla Dzhioyeva.
The election was re-run after Dzhioyeva was accused of electoral violations by Anatoly Bibilov, a rival who had been seen as the Kremlin's favourite.
Tibilov and Sanakoyev both distanced themselves from outgoing President Eduard Kokoity, who stepped down in December and said in 2008 that South Ossetia would eventually become part of the Russian Federation.
"In November-December, it became very clear that those supported by Kokoity did not win. Everyone saw it," Sanakoyev told Reuters.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and rely on Russia for financial and military support.
Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Toby Chopra