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Political philosophers here have long recognized that democracy is messy. By that standard, Russia has taken another big step toward becoming a democratic country.

It did it with parliamentary elections that included some of the worst elements of U.S.-style campaigning, but nevertheless seemed free of outright fraud and weakened the grip of the Communist Party.

In fact, the Communists just scraped by as the leading vote-getters, and a coalition of more centrist parties committed in varying degrees to economic reform could well be in the more commanding position.

That's not to say it will be easy. For one thing, the victory of parties backed by hawkish Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rode in largely on a wave of nationalism fueled by the Russian public's yearning for a victory in the war in Chechnya.

That includes Unity, created out of thin air by the Kremlin just two months ago. Nevertheless, it was the biggest vote-getter behind the Communists. It also includes the Union of Right Forces that is headed by former Prime Minister Sergie Kiriyenko, fired by President Boris Yeltsin last year in one of his many government shake-ups. It backs free-market concepts, and the fact that it was endorsed by Putin is a positive sign. Yet it probably wouldn't have gotten that backing had it not also supported the war.

On the other hand, the left-leaning Fatherland-All Russia Party headed by another former prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, did worse than expected after being attacked by the Kremlin. And so did the Yabloko Party of liberal economic reformer -- and war critic -- Grigory Yavlinsky, which was bombarded with negative advertising by the Kremlin-controlled media.

All of those parties will now share power with the weakened party of loose-cannon and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Communists.

If the reformers can put aside differences long enough to unite behind common economic ideals, the move to a more market-oriented economy, tax reform and other changes long blocked by the Communists might actually occur.

That would be a huge step forward for Russia even as the United States and the rest of the West cringe at the prospect that the results also served as the public's endorsement of Putin's overzealous approach to the war. The very fact that the Russian public had some real choices is a victory in itself.

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