The leader of Russia's Ingushetia region says President Vladimir Putin has made it clear to him that protesters demonstrating against a deal to redraw the border with Chechnya should not be forcefully dispersed.
In an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio on October 14, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov said he has spoken to Putin once since the round-the-clock protests in the Ingush capital, Magas, began on October 4.
"He called and asked about the situation, asked whether help was needed," Yevkurov said, adding that he and Putin also discussed what might be done to end the protest, one of the most persistent in Russia in recent years.
According to Yevkurov, Putin said that there should be "no forceful action" and urged him to "speak to the people" and resolve the problem peacefully.
The Kremlin has said nothing publicly about a conversation between Putin and Yevkurov.
Protesters say an agreement signed behind closed doors by Yevkurov and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov unfairly hands parts of Ingushetia to Chechnya. They have called for Yevkurov's resignation and a referendum on the September 26 agreement, which officials announced was approved by the parliaments of both regions several days later.
Ingush lawmakers later said they had not approved the deal.
On October 14, Yevkurov's office said he ordered state authorities "to provide security and safety for the protesters," including having ambulances and firefighting units close to the protesters.
Last week, Magas authorities allowed the protesters, many of whom are elderly men and women, to hold their sit-in protest through October 15. That period was subsequently extended to October 17.
Yevkurov tried to meet with the protesters on October 4 but fled after the crowd booed and threw empty water bottles at him.
Like many regions of Russia's North Caucasus, Ingushetia is plagued by poverty, high unemployment, corruption, and the threat of Islamic extremism.
Chechnya was the site of two devastating separatist wars from 1994-2001 and the epicenter of a subsequent Islamist insurgency that spilled violence into Ingushetia and other republics in the North Caucasus.
Ingushetia and Chechnya, its larger eastern neighbor, were parts of a single administrative region in the Soviet era and split in 1992, a year after the Soviet collapse.
Concerns about losing territory are strong in Ingushetia, which lost control of the disputed Prigorodny district to another neighbor, North Ossetia, following a conflict in 1992 that left some 600 people dead, predominantly Ingush.
There has been little to no outcry to the land swap in Chechnya, where Kadyrov rules unchallenged with Putin's backing.
He recently threatened the Ingush protesters, saying they “will be held accountable."