Defiant Yeltsin says election gives 'no reason for concern' majority of Russians are not communists

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As smoke cleared from the vast battleground of the Russian parliamentary election and cries of foul sounded from several of the losing camps, Boris Yeltsin yesterday spoke publicly for the first time about the results, insisting that he would not change the course of reforms.

"We have no reason for concern or to regard the election as a tragedy," the President said at the sanatorium outside Moscow where he is both recovering from a heart attack and digesting one of the less pleasant pills he has had to swallow of late - the Communists' impressive victory.

"I'm sure that the majority of Russians don't stand for Communism," Mr Yeltsin said, adding that he could work with the new Communist-dominated legislature; "in other countries where there are large Communist groups in parliament they find ways of interaction and normal democratic development".

But, although the election was not an outright disaster for the Yeltsin government, the strong support for the Communists and - to a lesser extent - the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, was a reminder of the scale of resentment over Russia's reforms.

It also included some sobering details for the Kremlin - the surprising performance, for example, of the hardline Soviet-style communist group, Working Russia, headed by Viktor Anpilov, which was running at 4.6 per cent yesterday, less that 0.5 per cent below the minimum needed to qualify for seats in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Mr Yeltsin has much to do if he, or his chosen successor, is to revive his fortunes in time for the presidential election in June, so - despite his attempts at a brave face - he will have to act. This probably will involve sacking some of his team and bringing in newcomers more in tune with his ill-tempered electorate, although he will have difficulty recruiting Communists.

The unpopular Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, is expected to depart soon. He is reportedly leading comfortably in a race for a Duma seat in the Murmansk region and cannot be both a minister and a deputy. Under new management, Russia's foreign ministry can be expected to continue its drift in an anti-Western direction (at least, in public).

Other changes - including the possible firing of the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev - are expected, probably in February, when Mr Yeltsin is due to announce whether he will run for a second term.

His former acting prime minister and economic reformer, Yegor Gaidar, said his party, Russia's Democratic Choice, probably would bow out of the presidential election to avoid splitting the democratic vote.

While international observers have proclaimed the election as broadly fair, several candidates allege fraud. The retired general Alexander Lebed, a possible presidential candidate whose nationalist Congress of Russian Communities fared unexpectedly badly (4.1 per cent), said there had been "terrible trickery". Similar complaints came from Alexander Rutskoi, the former Vice-President, whose Derzhava group also slumped.

Although such complaints smack of sour grapes, they gained credibility from the fact that the count was still grinding on yesterday. But those in search of evidence of glaring fraud need only look as far as Chechnya, where Russian troops launched fresh heavy attacks on Gudermes, seized last week by rebels. Election officials have proclaimed the Moscow-backed leader, Doku Zavgayev, as the overwhelming victor.