GROZNY, RUSSIA — Behind sandbags and concrete debris on a corner in the outskirts of this shattered city, a platoon of young Russian conscripts does not care whether Chechnya is part of Russia or not.
In a year of combat duty they haven't once changed the single, now-raggedy uniform that each was issued when they came to Chechnya. With the fighting stopped, they expect to withdraw any day, and dream of hot baths and sleeping in clean beds at home.
But their relief is mixed with resentment. "Inside it's still hard," says Dima, a young private with the Russian Interior Ministry troops. "We feel sorry for our buddies who died for nothing."
Sunday marked the first day since the war began 20 months ago that no Russian soldier was killed or wounded. The day before, Russian security chief Alexander Lebed had signed a deal with rebel military chief Aslan Maskhadov that he said meant "the war is over." The pact, the details of which are still secret, marked Moscow's acceptance of the fact that the Chechen separatists are in charge in Chechnya, after having recaptured the capital, Grozny, last month.
Dima and his comrades have certainly accepted that. They speak with mutual civility to a half-dozen heavily armed Chechen fighters, who are carving up a watermelon. The Chechens are posted outside the Russian position to guard it against renegade separatists who might provoke the Russians and break the fragile truce.
Similar deals were worked out all over town last week. Chechen fighters in Islamic skullcaps or green headbands with Arabic prayers scrawled on them became the protectors of the remaining Russian troops.
Under the agreement Gen. Lebed signed, a joint Chechen-Russian command will supervise an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. The question of Chechnya's political status - as part of Russia or an independent state - is deferred for five years.
How this will work in practice - how Grozny will relate to Moscow in the meantime, the role of the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities who have nominally ruled the region for the past eight months, whether all Chechens will acknowledge the separatists' authority, and a host of other questions - remains to be seen.
Nor has President Boris Yeltsin, who according to aides is still resting at a country retreat, passed judgement on the accord that Lebed reached in his direct negotiations with Maskhadov.
But the current peace effort, with massive troop withdrawals well under way and joint Russian-Chechen command structures in Grozny, has achieved more than any other since the war began.
"This is absolutely new and it's absolutely optimistic," says Zenon Kuchciak, deputy head of the Grozny mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The difference now is the attitude Lebed has brought to Chechnya from Moscow. He has the same goals federal officials have always had - to keep Chechnya within Russia in some form - but he is willing to extend more respect and understanding to the other side, he adds.
To Chechen fighters, the moment is brutally simple: The Russians have finally realized that they can't win. Rebel officials are a little more diplomatic.
"This is not a victory when so many people have died," says Boris Gazgeriyev, deputy interior minister of the separatist Chechen government. But he also makes clear that Chechnya already has a functioning government - the separatist one established when independence was declared in 1991. It is willing to compromise with the Russians, but not much, he says. "Our people have already suffered a lot."
Two very different moods
A large-scale troop disengagement began last Wednesday. About 2,000 Chechen fighters in cars, vans, and small trucks and 4,000 Russian troops in long convoys of armored vehicles withdrew from battlefronts. Officially, this was a balanced disengagement of forces, but the spirit of the two sides is very different.
Russian soldiers looked somber and dispirited as they sprawled atop their tanks and armored-personnel carriers along the highways out of the mountains. They followed an escort jeep of Chechens flying black flags with Arabic designs. Two of the four lead tanks were topped by bearded rebels holding large flags in one hand and the Koran in the other. The other two lead tanks flew the Russian red, blue, and white flag.
By contrast, the loose Chechen convoys withdrawing from Grozny to the hills were triumphant celebrations, stopping along the road for rounds of hugging and shouting.
Chechnya is devastated. The few who remain in Grozny apartment blocks are largely ethnic Russians, who don't have a network of relatives in the region to take them in. Without functioning utilities, they carry clean water from hand-pumped wells in buckets to wash by candlelight. Many of their windows were blown out and they worry about the coming winter.
For weeks in August, while Russian bombers flew overhead, the remaining residents lived in neighbors' basements. For many in apartments, food stocks were perilously low until the Swedish Red Cross delivered rice, sugar, and other food to besieged Grozny residents on Aug. 26.
The first new project of the joint commandants will be the unwar-like one of restoring power and water to the city.
The rebels generally hold little bitterness toward the Russian soldiers they have fought against for nearly two years. They see them as unfortunate conscripts who just want to go home. "My opinion is that they're just pawns in someone's game," says Magomed Musayev, deputy battalion commander of a rebel storming unit that helped take the city on Aug. 6. He is skeptical of joint patrols, because of their history of breaking cease-fires, he says.
Escorting a former 'enemy'
Yet one morning last week he agreed to walk several back alleys and passages through downtown Grozny to a Russian-held position to meet with a Russian lieutenant colonel. The Russian officer wanted a Chechen escort to protect his columns as they withdrew from the city, and Mr. Musayev, a tough-looking former boxer, agreed.
"We're figuring out how to withdraw without further losses," said the polite Russian officer, who gave only his first name, Viktor. "Everybody's tired. He's tired too," he said, nodding toward Musayev.
Elsewhere downtown, the head of the the intelligence service was also preparing to withdraw. But the service will continue to make sure that neither the Chechen opposition nor rogue fighters violate the truce. Like many Chechen fighters of all ranks, Col. Abu Movsayev is highly conscious of public relations and the political damage that any human rights violations or runaway crime and looting will do to the separatists' cause.
"The Russians want the Chechen people to confirm their accusations that the fighters were bandits," he says.
In the middle of the main bridge over the Sunzha River into downtown Grozny, a platoon of Russian Interior Ministry conscripts huddled behind concrete blocks in filthy uniforms and torn sandals last week waiting for orders from commanders they had barely heard from in 24 days.
Capt. Alexander Ryashin, a wiry man from the Ural mountains, said that he had not had a command from a superior officer in over three weeks. Meanwhile, his platoon received all its food and water from the Chechen separatist fighters they had come here to subdue.
A Chechen in a Muslim skull cap with a beaded tassel and a long black beard sat on the stacked concrete around the Russians, Kalashnikov assault rifle in hand. He is guarding the Russians against any "provocations" by overzealous Chechens. If Captain Ryashin has an errand to run, he asks for a Chechen escort.
Most of the bitterness on both sides of this truce is directed at Moscow and the senior Russian command. "On one side, we feel betrayed," says Ryashin, as the Russian leadership calls the battle on and off. "On the other, I'm happy the boys are going home."
Sergei, a Russian private, utters the same words used by Mr. Gazgeriyev, the separatist deputy interior minister: "The Russian people didn't need this war."
Adds Sergei: "I think it's our government that's to blame. We're simple soldiers. They can't sort something out between themselves, and we're suffering for it."