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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Feud Over Referendum Divides Yeltsin, Aushev

President Boris Yeltsin is feuding with Ingushetia over a planned referendum that would give the North Caucasus republic more independence, specifically the right to appoint its own law-enforcement chiefs.

On Saturday, Yeltsin personally barred Ingush President Ruslan Aushev from holding the referendum Feb. 28, and Aushev responded defiantly by saying he would go ahead with it unless the Kremlin agreed to a compromise.

"This referendum will be held if no compromise is worked out," Monolis Chakhkiyev, spokesman for Aushev, said Monday by telephone. "What democracy can you talk about if the people are not allowed to express their opinion by vote?"

The referendum also would ask voters whether Russia's criminal code should be amended to legitimize the custom of bride stealing, allow Ingush to carry traditional daggers and permit the president to pardon compatriots who have committed vendetta killings.

Yeltsin on Monday ordered his deputy chief of staff Oleg Sysuyev and Vyacheslav Mikhailov, the first deputy secretary of the Security Council, to hold consultations with Aushev to try to reach a compromise.

Yeltsin's press service said the Feb. 28 referendum is not canceled, but "suspended" because it contradicts the Constitution.

The existing Russian laws are of a "unitarian state, not a federal one, which we don't agree with," the Ingush president said Saturday at a meeting of North Caucasian leaders in Sochi, Interfax reported.

Bride stealing is one custom that in principle violates Russian laws on kidnapping and could theoretically lead to a prison term.

Both Moslem and Christian nations of the Caucasus have long had a tradition of brides being snatched away by their loved ones whenever their parents objected to the match. Most of the time, the young women give their consent in advance.

"I know this kidnapping tradition may look archaic, but for us it is a reality we live with," said Aushev's spokesman Chakhkiyev, who said he kidnapped his future wife in 1992.

Another issue to be addressed by the referendum is whether Ingush men should be allowed to carry their traditional daggers when dressed in folk costumes. Carrying a knife is outlawed under Russian law.

"If we act in accordance with these laws, then our entire Ingushetia folk ensemble should be jailed," Chakhkiyev complained.

Most Ingush would likely support their power-hungry leader in a referendum, as they did in presidential elections held in the republic last spring, analysts said.

Aushev tried to organize a similar referendum last year, but backed away after the Kremlin promised to sign an agreement dividing powers between the federal government and his administration. Kremlin legal experts drafted an agreement last March, but Aushev refused to sign it when told he would not be able to appoint his republic's law-enforcement chiefs. The Ingush leader then resumed his calls for a referendum.

Aushev insists that the ability to appoint local police commanders and prosecutors would help him fight crime in Ingushetia, which neighbors unruly Chechnya.

A leading expert on the North Caucasus said he agreed that Aushev should be allowed to appoint his own law-enforcement team, but said Aushev is interested not only in fighting crime but in strengthening his grip on the republic at the expense of federal authorities.

"Of course, it [control over law-enforcement] would deal a blow to the federal center's ability to control this republic," Alexander Iskandaryan of the Center for Caucasian Studies said Monday.

However, Aushev has no interest in cutting his republic off from federal subsidies and leading Ingushetia to full independence from Russia, Iskandaryan said.

Aushev has repeatedly said Ingushetia will never try to secede even if Chechnya gets international recognition as an independent state. Ingushetia was merged with Chechnya in 1934, but the two republics separated in 1992 after Chechens said they wanted full independence from Russia.