and HELEN WOMACK
Despite the memory of 70 years of Soviet tyranny, Russians have ushered the Communist Party back into the centre of national politics and put renewed pressure on Boris Yeltsin to restrain Russia's headlong dash towards free-market reforms.
The beleaguered Mr Yeltsin, still recovering from a heart attack, will today meet his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to discuss the government's strategy amid growing speculation that it will include finally sacrificing his pro-Western Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev.
Although the result reflected the anger of millions impoverished by the first stages of reform, it fell short of overwhelming victory. Free marketeers won enough votes for the State Duma, or lower house, to deny total control to the Communists and their allies.
International observers said the poll was fair, although there will be deep suspicion over Defence Ministry claims that most of the armed forces voted for the government-sponsored Our Home Is Russia party.
With nearly half the votes counted, the Communist Party had 21.9 per cent. Second were the ultra-nationalists of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose 11.1 per cent showing was poorer than the landslide vote they received in 1993, but better than most predictions.
Western markets, investors and diplomats reacted calmly to the long-predicted Communist victory. Although the party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, delights the grass roots with Soviet-style rhetoric, on election day he promised to conserve the best achievements of the reformers. Last night Mr Zyuganov described the result as "a complete rejection of the old radical system, which had "collapsed and become bankrupt . . . The government has received a vote of no confidence."
The big surprise was the poor performance of the hotly tipped nationalist Congress of Russian Communities (CRC). But its leader, General Alexander Lebed - a possible presidential candidate next year - proved popular in his power base, the arms-producing town of Tula, and will be able to claim one of the 225 seats set aside for constituency MPs.
Mr Chernomyrdin said last night that he was pleased with the performance of Our Home is Russia, which won an estimated 9.6 per cent, despite Russia's economic problems. He must also have been immensely relieved that the elections went ahead peacefully - the exception was Chechnya, where fierce fighting continued.
Apart from the pro-reform Yabloko party (8.4 per cent) few of the other 39 parties will gain the minimum 5 per cent needed to enter the 450-seat assembly, where half the seats are shared out among parties.
The Communist vote came mainly from the undeveloped provinces, while Muscovites and other city dwellers starting to benefit from reform backed Our Home and Yabloko. Last night, attention was already shifting to the far more important presidential poll next year.
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