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Russia's liberals worry about an end to Western-style democracy and a slide back to the Soviet past Add to ...

Leaning against a wall with a glass of French white wine, listening as television correspondents rattled off details of Vladimir Putin's overwhelming victory in Russia's presidential election yesterday, Lev Ponomarev tried to be philosophical.

All revolutions, he said, come unstuck at some point, and it was predictable that Russia's peaceful overthrow of communism 13 years ago and its hesitant embrace of democracy would itself be challenged one day.

But it hurt nonetheless yesterday to see so much hard work undone, and to see his country so easily take a half-step back to its Soviet past by re-electing a man Mr. Ponomarev views as having torpedoed democracy.

"We had a peaceful revolution, and now we have a restoration of the old," says the man who in 1990 helped form Democratic Russia, the first formal opposition to the Communist Party in the old USSR. Later that year, Mr. Ponomarev was elected to the Supreme Soviet in Mikhail Gorbachev's initial experiment with multi-party elections.

"We didn't think it could happen so fast. This may be the lowest point yet, and there's a real danger it could get worse."

As Mr. Ponomarev spoke, Alla Gerber, a Duma deputy from the early Boris Yeltsin years, walked by and squeezed his shoulders in a gentle hug. The two veteran standard-bearers for Russia's democrats exchanged a sad smile over the election results. Neither was very happy to see an ex-KGB colonel, who barely bothered to campaign and who laid out no election platform, win nearly 70 per cent of the vote.

What remains of Moscow's lonely group of liberals gathered last night in a trendy restaurant, ostensibly to applaud presidential candidate Irina Khakamada -- who campaigned on the idea that the country needed to resist its slide into dictatorship, and went down to bruising defeat with barely 4 per cent of the vote.

But as the results rolled in, the party rapidly turned into a wake for this country's experiment with Western-style democracy.

A distant second to Mr. Putin was Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov, who tallied a better-than-expected 15 per cent. Left-wing economist Sergei Glazyev just nudged out Ms. Khakamada for third place. (The only real surprise last night was a huge fire at Moscow's Manezh exhibition hall, immediately outside the Kremlin walls, just as polls were closing. A short circuit apparently sparked the blaze, which killed two firefighters.)

It was never in question who would win yesterday's election. Months before the campaign began, television stations Mr. Putin had gathered under Kremlin control over the previous four years were already promoting him as the only candidate fit to lead Russia.

His opponents were barely mentioned in the nightly newscasts, while the President's daily work was given fawning blanket coverage. Russia's richest man, tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed last October in what many observers saw as punishment for his funding of groups opposed to Mr. Putin's rule. Pop songs in heavy rotation on the radio sang of the need for "a man like Putin."

The heavy promotion of an already-popular President turned back the clock in the minds of many. "It's disgusting," said independent political analyst Andrei Piontkovksy, who boycotted the vote. "I'm not a young man, so I remember very well the Soviet days and this campaign was waged in a Soviet style."

Many found it hard to believe the country had so quickly exhausted the enthusiasm for democracy that existed back in August of 1991 when Mr. Yeltsin climbed on top of a tank outside the Russian White House to denounce a coup attempt by Soviet hard-liners. That act of defiance shattered the Soviet Union.

"We were so romantic back then, and believed in such good things," said Vitaly Tretyakov, a columnist at the rebelliously pro-reform Moscow News weekly newspaper in the time of perestroika. He blamed Mr. Yeltsin and those who surrounded him for turning democracy into a dirty word in Russia.

"The last 13 years were dedicated to making all possible mistakes that could have been made. 'Democracy' now means the same thing as 'corruption.' 'Liberal' means 'thief,' and 'friendly toward the West' means 'robber of the country.' "

For Mr. Ponomarev, Russia lost its course in January of 1994, when Mr. Yeltsin first ordered federal soldiers into the separatist republic of Chechnya. A decade later -- despite tens of thousands of deaths -- Mr. Putin is still trying to militarily subdue the Muslim region. Meanwhile, the country has seen a rise in nationalism, xenophobia and nostalgia for the Soviet past.

"Many young people have gone to fight in Chechnya and come back twisted," Mr. Ponomarev said. "They've lost themselves and lost their ideals. That war was Yeltsin's biggest crime."

As he spoke, a band took the stage and started playing behind him, though few of the mourners could be coaxed onto the restaurant's empty dance floor. The master-of-ceremonies stepped in and tried to lighten the mood, offering to take bets on what the exact voting breakdown would be.

"I'll put 100 rubles on Putin," someone yelled out. No one even smiled.

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