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LEADING ARTICLE: The end is not nigh for reform in Russia

On the face of it, there is not much for the West to cheer in the results of Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia. The Communist Party is the clear winner, the ultra-nationalists of Vladimir Zhirinovsky appear likely to capture second place, and moderate reformers and pro- Western liberals trail in third and fourth. Less than four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of history's most catastrophic experiments in murderous utopianism, the siren songs of Communist nostalgia clearly remain attractive to millions of Russian voters. Equally disappointing was the failure of reformists and democrats to form a united electoral front in opposition to extremists of both left and right.

Yet it would be a mistake to paint a picture of uniform bleakness. There are two crucial reasons for suggesting that this is not necessarily the end of the road for reform. Yesterday's refusal of the markets to panic reflects an awareness that the end is not yet nigh.

First, even in Poland and Hungary - the two most adamantly anti-Communist countries in Eastern Europe - former Communists now dominate national politics. Effect on political and economic reform: not much. The Communists came to power because of a generalised discontent. But they have few long- term solutions. In practice they, too, find themselves forced to administer the austerity measures that they found so easy to criticise in opposition.

Second, this lack of viable answers means that the long-term prospects for Communist success in Russia as in Eastern Europe are poor. It is plausible to suppose that the Communists' performance in the next few years, since they will be unable to deliver an improvement in living standards, will be less impressive than the result on Sunday.

So far, Russian voters have tended to zig-zag from one extreme to another. In 1993, the far-right Mr Zhirinovsky was the main winner. Now, he and his cutely named Liberal Democrats have partly given way to the Communists. Resentments at the collapse of the Soviet empire, combined with the real hardship of life in Russia today, means that millions of Russians cast their vote for a Communist Party which has a nationalist economic and political platform: Zhirinovsky, without the lunatic tricks.

But, even before the collapse of Soviet Communism, it was clear that chauvinist resentments in Russia, on one hand, and loyalty to the Soviet way of life, on the other, ran so deep that any transition to a more democratic system would be troubled at best. So far, at least, what is extraordinary is not how badly things have gone wrong but how much has been achieved.

Meanwhile, the terms of Russia's constitution mean that the main battle lies ahead. Victory in June's presidential election is the real prize. Even here, however, it need not be bad news all the way. The West assumes that the ailing Boris Yeltsin is still the only hope for Russia's future. The West is wrong - just as it was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Russia is, to put it mildly, in a terrible mess. But, however much Russians complain, the reforms are here to stay, whoever wins in June. One day, those changes might even bear unpoisoned fruit.