Leading Article: Russia's painful transition to democracy is not complete

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ONCE UPON a time there was a Georgian standing in Red Square with a watermelon in a box in front of him. A Russian came up to him and asked if the watermelon was for sale. "Sure, which one do you want?" the Georgian asked.

"You've only got one," replied the Russian. "There's only one Leonid Brezhnev," responded the Georgian, "but we still have to choose him in elections."

Russian democracy has come a long way since then. Yesterday's elections for the Duma, the parliament, were manifestly imperfect. Associated Press summarised the campaign by saying it "has not paid much attention to issues".

Well, we complain about that here, but it is far more the case, and far more damaging, in Russia, which possesses no established parties - except the Communists - and no tradition of electoral competition after centuries of tsars, royal or red.

If these elections were about anything, then they were about the division of the spoils of bandit capitalism. Russian MPs have immunity from prosecution and, unlike most of their Western counterparts, enjoy a standard of perks far higher than they could get in non-political life. What is more, the elections took place against the background of an internal war in Chechnya which is popular with the voters.

However, it's a great achievement that the elections happened at all. Those in the West who thought that Russia, with its totalitarian history, could make the transition to liberal-capitalist democracy within 10 years were naive.

There is much, and justifiable, cynicism about democracy among ordinary Russians. But all is not hopeless. Real power lies with Boris Yeltsin, and when he hands over in next June's presidential elections, it will be the first time that power has been transferred democratically in Russia.

At the moment it looks as if the choice will be between Yevgeny Primakov, a 70-year-old who used to work for the KGB, and Vladimir Putin, a 47-year- old who used to work for the KGB.

The man in Red Square is now selling two watermelons.