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LITHUANIA'S parliamentary elections, which just returned its former Communists to power on a "labor" party ticket, are not to be read as heralding an early return to communism.

But the outcome of the Nov. 15 runoff vote does present a significant reminder to Western governments of the social-political problems of all the new democracies, be they Russian or East European, as they aim for a market economy.

Lithuania's national euphoria over independence had subsided amid a harsh and steady decline in living standards.

This is largely due to the loss of advantageous Soviet trade, but also to the stringencies implicit in International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies linking assistance to radical and rapid economic reform.

Public frustration over the impact of reforms was manifested in the defeat of the Sajudis party, whose leader, Vytautas Landsbergis, announced independence in March 1990.

When the victorious Democratic Labor Party leader, Algirdas Brazauskas, said his government would still need to cooperate with the IMF, but under revised conditions "lessening the economic burden" on ordinary people, he was, in fact, voicing a view increasingly heard everywhere in the former East bloc.

Lithuania's vote will have been well noted, for example, in Bulgaria, where the premier of that country's first government without Communists was recently defeated in a parliamentary "no confidence" motion. The fall of Premier Philip Dimitrov was due, ostensibly, to other factors. But in essence it reflected the same growing unease about the added hardships under market reforms. Public approval and patience are wearing thin.

As the ruling Union of Democratic Forces searches for a replacement, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (formerly the Communist Party) waits in the wings and appears increasingly likely to retain parliamentary strength despite the fact that its former president and a premier were recently imprisoned for fraud.

In Poland, economic reforms in the last two years have brought the country closer to European Community membership and encouraged foreign investment. But labor unrest this year has shown a salutary erosion of public confidence in a free market in which ever shrinking real wages mean that better living standards are as distant as ever.

Austerity, Polish officials concede, has hit harder and is more prolonged than the "shock therapy" reformers expected. The new economic system is increasingly seen by labor as creating golden opportunities for profiteers and "interest groups" while conditions remain the same for the average worker.

Czechoslovak reform has hitherto seemed well on course. But it may fall apart, with serious social consequences, when Slovak nationalists realize their goal of separation Jan. 1, 1993. (Polls still show most Slovaks and Czechs disapprove of the split.)

Romania last month reelected Ion Iliescu, a one-time Communist, who vows to continue market reforms. Miners responded by rioting in Bucharest, as last year, to demand a slower process.

The hardships arising in eastern Europe from a year of "big bang" price liberalization have devalued the merits of democracy. Increasingly, East Europeans see these market reforms as just another system that pinches living standards and job security.

It is a complex situation. If economic reform breaks down, democratic institutions will also be at risk.

The threat will come not so much from the ex-Communists but from the disturbing combination of extreme nationalism and authoritarian trends in government now apparent in the region.

To rekindle the democratic flame, eastern European governments will need to show greater regard for the difficulties of the majority. They will also need support from the West.

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