RUSSIAN voters, resentful and radicalized, have dealt President Boris Yeltsin a sharp slap in the face but not derailed their country's fitful democratic and economic reform.
Sunday's elections to the Duma (lower house of parliament) gave Mr. Yeltsin's fiercest critics an impressive victory. Constrained by parliament's limited powers, however, and hamstrung by their own rivalries, they are unlikely to force major changes on the government, politicians and observers here say.
But the results do raise the stakes dramatically for crucial presidential elections due next June, which will set Russia's political and economic course into the next century.
The front-runners in that race - to judge by Sunday's results - are the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Leading the field easily with nearly 22 percent of the vote in the Duma election, the Communists have emerged with an even stronger hand than opinion polls predicted. And even though Mr. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party trailed with about 11 percent, its second placing gave the party a surprise boost.
As politicians gird their loins for the presidential race, it is the reformers who must scramble to catch up. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's bloc, Our Home is Russia, defended the government's record of cautious reform and won only 9.7 percent of the vote while Yabloko, led by free-marketeer Grigory Yavlinsky, was close behind with 7.9 percent.
However the elections turn out, Yeltsin pledged on Sunday that ''nobody and nothing can force me to abandon the reform policy. There can be no doubt about that.'' Observers expect no serious change of course from the Kremlin in either foreign or domestic policy.
Some nips and tucks are likely, though, as Yeltsin positions himself for a likely run for re-election as president in June. Since many voters are angry at the poor state of their once-prized social security system ''he will pay more attention to social welfare,'' says Sergei Markov, a Moscow-based analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The president is also likely to sack some of the more unpopular figures in his government, such as privatization chief Anatoly Chubais and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, presidential staffer Andrei Loginov predicts.
Lonely in victory
Despite the election results, however, pressure on the Kremlin to reverse or slow reform will likely prove easy to resist because the Communists will stand almost bereft of allies in the next parliament.
Nor can they count on Zhirinovsky, whom they dislike and mistrust almost as much as they do Yeltsin. Zhirinovsky has always voted with the government rather than with his radical rhetoric when it comes to the crunch.
The government's opponents ''can make a lot of noise, but not really do anything serious,'' suggests one Western diplomat.
At press time, only four parties had surmounted the 5 percent barrier to win representation in parliament, though the Duma's final coloring will depend on results in the single mandate constituencies that provide half its 450 members. Those figures are expected only later in the week.
One of the surprises was the failure of the Congress of Russian Communities to gain parliamentary representation. But the moderate nationalist group's leading candidate, Gen. Alexander Lebed, was elected to represent a district. Some analysts believe he can still launch a strong presidential candidacy.
The clear differences between the few parties in the new Duma may play into Yeltsin's hands, his strategists hope.
''The election results should make society realize that there is no alternative to Boris Yeltsin,'' argues Mr. Loginov, the president's point man in relations with the Duma. ''He is the ideal compromise figure to unite everyone and guarantee continuity.''
The president's bid to build a firm political center, from which to launch a reelection campaign, could even lead him to invite opponents into his government. ''The government composition should take into account a certain distribution of forces in the new Duma,'' Yeltsin said on Sunday.
But it seemed unlikely that opposition forces would take the bait, preferring to keep the unpopular administration at a distance.
The Kremlin also tried to use these elections to resolve one of its most corrosive political problems by holding elections for head of the rebellious southern Russian republic of Chechnya. Moscow's aim was to legitimize a Chechen leader other than Gen. Dzhokar Dudayev, whose fighters are still battling for independence.
The Kremlin-backed candidate in Chechnya, Doku Zavgayev, won, but the vote is likely to run into legal challenges. Mr. Zavgayev's only serious rival, Ruslan Khasbulatov, withdrew before polling began. International observers refused to monitor the election and fierce fighting made voting impossible in some major towns.
Yet the election itself marks progress for Russian democracy. Voter turnout was about 65 percent, up from the 53 percent in the last election two years ago. In conversations with voters of many ages, professions, and political views, their reasons for their choices were clear, articulate, and not at all confused by the 43 election blocs on their ballots.
The fact that the election was held, on time and by law rather than by presidential decree, says Michael McFaul, a Russian politics expert at the Carnegie Endowment, ''is tremendously important. It raises the stakes for those who want to postpone the presidential election.''
Even supporters of the wildest, most unpredictable figure in Russian politics, Zhirinovsky, made a coherent case. ''He's a little bit crazy,'' says a clean-cut young militiaman in a leather jacket in a suburban Moscow polling station - just crazy enough that potential foreign invaders would fear him. ''I also have a great respect for Stalin for the same reason. He was a fanatic for his country.''
Communist voters were most typically pensioners who have had to return to work as the value of their pensions withered away, but also young families like the Lypkins. Viktor is a truck driver and Nadyezhda is an accountant, and they have no desire to return to the Soviet Union of a decade ago. But while they used to vacation in the Crimea every year, now all their money is spent on food, and they still wear clothes they bought during the Soviet years.
''We're not against democracy, but we need social protections,'' said Mrs. Lypkin.