BY lining himself up to become the Soviet Union's executive president, Mikhail Gorbachev is taking a high-stakes risk that closely links his own abilities and intentions to his country's future. After his election to the post, expected at the current extraordinary session of the legislative Congress of People's Deputies, Mr. Gorbachev will have broad - some say dictatorial - powers to impose states of emergency, hire and fire top officials, and challenge the parliament.
Few people quarrel with the need for such a post, in principle. It takes the Soviet presidency out of its ceremonial status as speaker of the parliament and places it at the top of an executive branch of government whose role has until now been carried out only by the Communist Party.
But the manner in which the new presidency has been established - and the degree of power Gorbachev will enjoy - has sparked a heated debate that some observers say could even jeopardize Gorbachev's election to the presidency.
But Soviet officials backing Gorbachev cite the gravity of the national crisis as the overriding concern.
``We are in such a difficult situation, that we need urgent action by the president in many directions to promote perestroika - in the economy, in the social sphere, to put in order the legal sphere, to try to smooth over ethnic conflicts,'' says Georgy Shakhnazarov, an aide to Gorbachev. ``He needs his presidential `first 100 days.'''
According to another party official, those first 100 days will include a ``tightening of the screws'' - not in the sense of a return to Stalinism, the official says, but rather a return to ``elementary order and discipline.''
Soviet officials say there is no time to lose. Thus the first executive president is not to be elected by direct popular vote, but rather by the congress. Since the congress was popularly elected, the will of the people will be reflected in a congressional vote for president, they say.
But opponents of Gorbachev's bid for a congressional vote, centered in the congress's left-radical Inter-Regional Group and in the minority republics, insist that a congressional vote will favor the most-populous, Slavic-dominated republics - and drown out the voice of ethnic minorities.
Some observers speculate that Gorbachev, whose popularity at home has declined, was afraid to face the voters directly - before his plan to improve the consumer-goods crisis has shown results.
It was this haste to put the new executive president in place that spurred the Lithuanian parliament on March 11 to declare the republic's independence from the Soviet Union. The Lithuanians feared that Gorbachev would use the enhanced powers of the presidency to block secession.
``You can only suppress with power. You can't put things in order,'' says Yuri Boyars, a deputy from the neighboring Baltic republic of Latvia.
In a speech to the Congress, Inter-Regional Group leader Yuri Afanasyev explained the group's objections to the new presidency. The law may be introduced, he said, ``only if and when it can be incorporated in a whole, single organic text of a new democratic Constitution.''
Mr. Afanasyev laid out five conditions for the establishment of a new presidency:
Conclusion of a new union agreement among the Soviet republics, that would redefine the power relationship between Moscow and the republics' governments. There is virtual national consensus that such a new agreement is long overdue.
Formation of a ``fully authoritative Supreme Soviet.'' As long as Gorbachev is able to dominate the parliament to the degree he does now, it cannot serve as a real check on his power. Some Soviet scholars on presidential power are troubled by the new law's provision that will allow the Soviet president to suggest to the Congress of People's Deputies (also compliant to Gorbachev) that it dissolve and reelect the Supreme Soviet when its two chambers cannot settle a dispute.
Establishment of a system of direct presidential election based on a new union agreement.
Development of a multiparty system, in which a presidential race takes place in an arena of ``normal political struggle.'' On March 13 the amendment of Article 6 of the Constitution, which guaranteed the Communist Party's leading role, paved the way for legalization of other parties.
A rule that prevents the president from holding a position of power in a political party.
Afanasyev hurt the Inter-Regional Group's cause when he then criticized Vladimir Lenin directly - still a politically suicidal approach. Afanasyev referred to ``the principle of a state policy of mass violence and terror.''
But the last point in Afanasyev's argument, forbidding the president to hold a party position, almost received the two-thirds majority of votes need to include it in the Constitution. If it had passed, a newly installed President Gorbachev would have been required to resign as general-secretary of the Communist Party.
This may happen anyway, says Gorbachev aide Shakhnazarov.