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For Fauziya Bairamova, the battle that gave Kazan to the Russians 440 years ago has never ended.

"We are still at war with them," said Bairamova, a Tatar nationalist leader who had to be persuaded to speak Russian.On Saturday, Tatarstan votes on whether the oil-rich region should be independent of Russia, posing a serious threat to the unity of the largest of the former Soviet republics.

Russian television calls it "a crucial moment in the history of the Russian Federation."

Voters will be asked: "Do you agree that the republic of Tatarstan is a sovereign state, a subject of international law, building its relations with the Russian Federation and other republics (states) on an equal basis?"

Russia's Constitutional Court ruled last week the referendum's wording was unconstitutional, saying it implied altering the Russian Federation's state structure. But that decision is expected to have little effect on the vote.

Thursday morning, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin appealed to the parliament of Tatarstan to cancel the referendum, news agencies reported.

"I believe it is not too late yet for the parliament of Tatarstan to return to the issue and adopt a decision which would correspond to the resolution of the Constitutional Court of Russia," Yeltsin said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

The Russian legislature was expected to debate the referendum soon.

Meanwhile, U.N. special envoy Cyrus Vance said Thursday a cease-fire has been arranged in Nagorno-Karabakh so he can visit the disputed region.

Vance, on a United Nations fact-finding mission to the Caucasus Mountains area, announced the development at a news conference after three days of talks with government officials in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

He had said Wednesday that he wanted a cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh so he could travel to the area, where Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have fought for four years for control of the enclave. The battling has surged since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency, meanwhile, reported Thursday that Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian agreed to terms of an Iranian-brokered cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh.


(Additional information)

Health-care crisis loom

People in the former Soviet lands who can still afford medical care must rely on a deteriorating delivery system that is suffering acute shortages of equipment and drugs, the United Nations says.

The World Health Organization and the U.N. Children's Fund appealed Wednesday for an immediate $100 million in technical and material support to prevent the collapse of the republics' health-care systems.

Hyper-inflation and low wages have put health care out of reach of many former Soviets.

In a joint statement, the U.N. agencies said the crisis in the five central Asian republics was especially severe. It said the deterioration of medical services in those states was "totally unprecedented and rapidly evolving."

"The signs point to the possibility of a sudden and massive collapse of existing systems that could set off a vicious spiral of hunger and disease and political and economic chaos," the agencies said.