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For the first time since democracy reared its head in Eastern Europe, a ruling communist government - although campaigning under a new name - has been returned to power by popular vote.

This seemingly ironic twist occurred in Bulgaria where about 84 percent of the voters turned out to cast ballots. After non-communist candidates won handily in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, many assumed Bulgaria would follow suit.But experts say the results are not surprising for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Bulgarian affection for things Russian.

This affection is linked to one key historical event. In the late 19th century, the Russian army provided crucial assistance in ridding Bulgaria of 500 years of hated Turkish rule.

And, during the postwar communist rule, living conditions improved, the country received relatively generous subsidies of fuel and raw materials from Russia - and during the campaign the ruling party repeatedly warned that the opposition would upset the status quo, forcing everyone to scramble to survive.

A prediction by one senior party official that "the Bulgarian people will prefer security to the chance that a few might get rich" apparently was on the mark.

But don't count a freer Bulgaria out just yet.

Despite appearing rather disorganized until just the last few months of the campaign, the opposition party did make a strong showing, especially in the capital city of Sofia. And, opposition party access to the media was significant.

Overall, most independent observers believe the election was fair. That in itself is a positive sign.

More important than who won was that open elections were held, that significant opposition was allowed and that voters had the opportunity to cast secret ballots.

If that democratic experience continues, the emergence of more political diversity and a more free economy eventually will follow.