The new leader of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia said on Wednesday it would wait for a signal from Moscow before holding a referendum on joining Russia.

Moscow recognised South Ossetia and the coastal region of Abkhazia as independent after fighting a brief war with Georgia in 2008. It has provided them with extensive financial support, offered Russian citizenship to their populations and stationed troops there.

In comments to TASS news agency, Alan Glagoev, who defeated incumbent Anatoly Bibilov in a presidential vote at the weekend, said South Ossetia needed for Russia to be on board with a referendum on joining the country if it were to be held.

"This is not a unilateral process," TASS news agency quoted him as saying. "We must understand our strategic partner (Russia). As soon as there will be a signal, as soon as there will be an understanding that the time has come, we certainly will hold this referendum."

Moscow's treatment of South Ossetia and Abkhazia set a precedent for its more recent actions in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin recognised two regions of eastern Ukraine as independent on Feb. 21, and invaded the country three days later on the pretext of protecting Russian-speakers there against "genocide" by Ukrainian forces.

Any move by South Ossetia to join Russia would be certain to draw strong condemnation from the West. Georgia has said that any plans by it to hold a referendum are unacceptable.

Glagoev's comments mark a contrast with the position of his predecessor Bibilov, who said in March that the region would be taking steps in the near future to become part of Russia.

The Kremlin has previously said that no legal action had been taken toward holding such a referendum but that Russia respected the opinion of the people of South Ossetia.

(Reporting by Reuters, Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Tomasz Janowski)