LIFE COULD hardly have felt better for Ruslan Aushev. Grinning and ruddy-faced, he was dancing on the steps of his palace while his nephew merrily blasted a semi-automatic pistol into the heavens.
Behind him stood his fine new presidential residence with its reflective glass windows, columned entrance and white dome. In the square below, work was nearly finished on a multi-million dollar parliament and government headquarters - the beginnings of his new capital called Magas, or Sun City.
His festivities had attracted several thousand people, the local elite, who had swept in from across the north Caucasus in four-wheel-drive cars and armoured Mercedes. A bull and several sheep had been sacrificed ceremonially. Teams of dancers went through their paces; his troops fired a multi-gun salute; local leaders even gave him presents of sable furs and paintings.
No matter that more than half the place - set in a potato field on the plains north of the Caucasus mountains - was still a mud-bound building site. No matter, too, that half his guests seemed to be armed bodyguards, testimony to the deep instability of this part of the world and the Caucasian penchant for hostage-taking.
When President Aushev, 44, a decorated Soviet hero of the Afghan war, sets out to enjoy himself, he does it in medieval style. "I feel as if I have been born for a second time," he told his guests rapturously.
Mr Aushev runs the republic of Ingushetia which, with a population of 300,000, is smaller than Bristol. It is one of the 89 regions and republics of the Russian Federation, and is therefore still answerable to Moscow. And yet he is behaving like the head of a nation 20 times the size and, more to the point, an independent one.
Why? Because his small Islamic corner of the Caucasus is steadily slipping away from Moscow's enfeebled grasp. It has avoided doing so in the same flagrant way as its Chechen neighbours, whose declaration of independence after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 led the Russians, three years later, to send in their tanks.
Yet the Ingush share the same troubled relationship with their masters in the north, and the same strong sense of their separate identity. Like the Chechens, they were deported by Stalin in 1944 to central Asia, where at least 100,000 died of sickness and starvation in the first two years alone.
The creation of a new Ingush capital, a few miles from Nazran - the old administrative centre - is both a gesture of further independence and an attempt to cock a snook at the neighbouring Ossetians. The ceremony at Magas was timed to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the eruption of the Ingush-Ossetian conflict.
At present, Mr Aushev stops short of a demand for full independence, although he has announced that he will leave the federation if Moscow's "imperialism" in the Caucasus and a shortage of funds continue. "These days, it is better to be a British colony than a subject of Russia," he told Vremya newspaper last month. "The British would at least have invested money."
Certainly, money - despite his lavish spending on the capital - is sorely needed. Ingushetia is still burdened by thousands of refugees from the Chechen war. The water system and sanitation are bad. There is much poverty. The Ingush authorities will not say how much they plan to squander on Magas or exactly where the money is coming from, although they attribute much of it to Ingushetia's earnings as an economic free zone. But the bill will run into hundreds of millions of dollars.
It will be chalked up as wasted wealth until the republic becomes more stable and can develop a normal economy. That day is some way off. Though not as bad as Grozny, hostage-taking and crime has spilt over the Chechen border. Russian taxi drivers refuse to go into Ingushetia, for fear of being abducted.
Yet Mr Aushev is unrepentant about his grand plans. He feigns indignation when it is suggested that he has been too extravagant. "What should we have built? An izba - a peasant's log hut - on hen's legs?"
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