President Boris Yeltsin, fighting to keep his job after the Communists made big gains in parliamentary elections, urged Russians in a New Year message to stay the course of economic reform and not allow the political clock to be turned back in 1996.
"It is in Russia's national interests to develop democracy, to strengthen law and order and to continue economic reforms," Mr Yeltsin told guests at a New Year reception in the Kremlin. "This is the path determined by global development. If we try to abandon it, we will find ourselves in a dead end again. The year 1996 should not become a year of new shocks and reverse movement."
The Russian leader returned last week to his Kremlin office from the sanatorium where he had been convalescing after his heart attack in October. Extracts from the New Year speech were broadcast to the nation on television.
Last year has not been a good one for Mr Yeltsin. It began with fierce fighting in Chechnya, and yesterday security forces were on alert in case of renewed tension in the Caucasian region on the first anniversary of the storming of Grozny by Russian tanks.
The conflict, which Mr Yeltsin has called the biggest disappointment of his presidency, took a heavy toll on his health as he suffered two heart attacks last year. Despite this, the 64-year-old Kremlin leader appears to be gearing up to run in presidential elections set for June. However, he has said he will wait until February before announcing his final intentions.
The pugnacious Mr Yeltsin is likely to be spurred on to fight for a second term by the success of Communists and nationalists in the parliamentary elections on 17 December. Final results released last week showed that the Communists, who have promised to strengthen state control over the economy and hold a referendum on restoring the Soviet Union, will hold 157 of the 450 seats in the Duma.
The government party, Our Home is Russia, will be the second biggest group in parliament with 55 seats. But right behind with 51 are the extreme nationalists of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a presidential candidate who is demanding cabinet places in any government reshuffle. President Yeltsin, who has far more power than the assembly, has resisted this, and Viktor Chernomyrdin has remained Prime Minister. Russians know they cannot afford to be apathetic in 1996, which will be a political watershed for the country.
Politics receded into the background yesterday as Muscovites queued at the last minute to buy fir trees and presents to put under them. The Orthodox Church has made a comeback, and Christmas is now celebrated in Russia on 6 and 7 January. But the secular New Year holiday, with Father Frost and the Snow Maiden who keeps him sober on his gift- giving rounds, is still favourite.
The Russians have also adopted the Chinese system of identifying the passing years with a cycle of animals; 1996 is the Year of the Rat. "Let's just hope we don't get a rat in the Kremlin," said one Muscovite, queuing outside a kiosk to buy a rubber rat for his son.