Ten years ago, they marched around the ring road of this eastern German city bearing candles to symbolize their desire for a more enlightened brand of communism. Within weeks, their protest would blossom into mass demonstrations that toppled the Berlin Wall, broke the back of the Soviet empire and ended the division of Europe.

But, for the leaders of a dissident movement that banished nearly six decades of totalitarian rule under Nazi and Communist regimes, the early hopes engendered by a new era of democratic freedoms have yielded bittersweet results.

"On the whole, I guess you have to say there has been a positive improvement in people's lives," said Jochen Laessig, an attorney who was the chief organizer of the 1989 Leipzig demonstrations that paraded behind the banner, "We are the people."

"But there is so much disillusionment among young people that you have to fear for the future."

Across the once dreary landscape of eastern Germany, there are gleaming shopping malls, fast autobahns and a fiber-optic telephone system that is considered the most modern in Europe. But in a series of interviews, the Leipzig protest leaders painted another picture as well--of rampant joblessness and crime, voter apathy and alienation, and growing nostalgia for the Communists they helped topple from power.

Since reunification, the federal government has spent $900 billion in economic support and subsidies for the 17 million people living in the former East Germany. While the state spent the equivalent of $53,000 for every citizen, a recent survey showed only 38 percent of them said they like living in a democracy and one out of every seven would prefer to restore the Iron Curtain. For many, the situation remains so bleak that the only solution is to leave for western Germany or another country--an option chosen by 1.2 million eastern Germans since the wall came down.

Irmtraut Hollitzer, who led the December 1989 storming of the Leipzig headquarters of the dreaded secret police known as the Stasi, said she is horrified by the resurgence of the former Communists, who now call themselves the Party of Democratic Socialism. They captured 22 percent of the vote in last week's elections in Saxony to become the state's second strongest party.

"People are willing to forget about abuses in the past because all they care about are jobs, so they think back to days when everybody had work even though their lives were so miserable," said Hollitzer, who manages a museum that displays the tools and methods once employed by ubiquitous Stasi agents.

"When you tell people they now have the right to vote, they respond by asking, 'What for?' And when you tell them they now have the right to travel, they say it's useless because they cannot afford to do so when they don't have a job."

In recent elections, eastern Germans have shown fickle voting patterns. After giving massive support in the 1994 elections to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who led the country's reunification, they turned against him last year and swung in favor of his Social Democratic successor, Gerhard Schroeder. Now that Schroeder is coming under fire for advocating austere budgets, the former Communists are gaining support because voters perceive them as defending eastern interests against those who want to cut subsidies.

Roland Quester, a Greens party member who serves on Leipzig's city council, said other political parties cannot match the former Communists in terms of organization, money and grass-roots support. Next year, the former Communists are expected to reap a huge windfall when legal obstacles will be lifted on their claim to billions of dollars that the East German Communist Party stashed in secret foreign bank accounts.

As one of the few dissident leaders who have remained active in politics, Quester acknowledged that mainstream democrats have only themselves to blame for ceding ground to the Communists. "I would never have imagined this could happen when I saw the old communist system crumble 10 years ago," said Quester, who drafted a proclamation for greater democracy endorsed by the Lutheran church that dealt a mortal blow to the Communist regime.

"But people here have grown so apathetic," he said. "The main parties send in their political leaders from the west, and very few of them have any feel for local problems. It's no wonder that local Communists are on the road back to power."

Rolf-Michael Turek, a Lutheran vicar who steered the church's moral authority behind the 1989 demonstrations, said the Communists' resurrection has left him "angry and upset." But he said he has no plans to become involved again in politics because he believes the biggest challenges facing his nation lie beyond the realm of government.

"There are so many new forces at work in modern society that I feel I can have a bigger personal impact by doing local community work," said Turek, who now serves as chaplain at the Leipzig university hospital. "Politics can't solve everything. And in some cases, it only makes things worse."

Laessig, who also has refused to get involved in politics, said that unlike the Solidarity movement in Poland and the Charter 77 opposition in Czechoslovakia, the East German dissidents never sought to destroy the communist system. They were motivated largely by personal grievances and simply wanted to reform the system. But in the end, their limited aims were overwhelmed by dramatic changes sweeping across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

"None of us ever expected that our protests would lead to the collapse of our country and the creation of a unified Germany," he said. "If we had known what would happen, I'm not sure we would have wanted to achieve it. But now that it has happened, we have to make the best of it."

CAPTION: East Germans crowded the streets of Leipzig on Nov. 13, 1989, demanding reforms and an end to the communist regime.

CAPTION: City council member Roland Quester, top, is one of the few dissidents who remained in politics. Irmtraut Hollitzer, left, and Jochen Laessig express concern about apathy and alienation among eastern Germans.