THIS week Russian leader Boris Yeltsin begins a fight for his political life. An emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies, the Russian republic's highest legislative body, opens March 28. It is a meeting called by Mr. Yeltsin's opponents with the clear intention of ousting him as parliament head. The Communist Party bloc that is spearheading the anti-Yeltsin drive has a large part of the delegates under its control.
But Yeltsin has what may prove to be a far more potent, if dangerous, weapon - the support of angry people. The Russian leader is marching into the Kremlin meeting hall with the power of hundreds of thousands of striking coal miners behind him.
With the Soviet government about to implement an unpopular rise in retail prices beginning on April 2, potentially millions of industrial workers wait to join the miners. And on the opening day of the Congress, Yeltsin's liberal allies in the Democratic Russia bloc intend to mobilize a massive rally of Muscovites to support him.
Yeltsin is also coming off the March 17 referendum, which delivered him a political victory in the form of 70 percent support for the creation of a Russian presidency, for which he intends to run. All this has caused his opponents to have second thoughts. The anti-Yeltsin bloc in the Russian parliament is no longer talking clearly about using the Congress to hold a no-confidence vote on Yeltsin. Instead, they may try to block his plans to create the post of president.
Indeed, Vladimir Isakov, one of the six Russian parliament leaders who pushed for the convening of the Congress, admitted in an interview last week that they might have to resign instead. The opponents of Yeltsin "are retreating because so obviously they cannot challenge public opinion," comments Igor Sedikh, editor in chief of Russia's independent information agency. "The Communist aim to dethrone Yeltsin is no longer valid."
Yeltsin chose pointedly to demonstrate his strength March 22 at the Kirov industrial plant in Leningrad, a site visited only a week before by Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov.
"The Communist Party has left the trenches and is on the offensive, pursuing its aim to take over power in Russia, to stage a constitutional coup," Yeltsin said in a fiery speech to thousands of cheering workers. "Today we need to save the country not from the enemy without, but from the enemy within."
Yeltsin directly backed the miners, whose strike has shut down a quarter of the country's 600 mines. "They accuse me of supporting the strikers, but what could I do? The strikers have political demands, the resignation of Gorbachev."
The Kirov workers responded with chants of "Down with Gorbachev" and "Resign, Resign."
Yeltsin offers more than simple confrontation, however. He and his government plan to put their own Russian economic program, a kind of Russia-only version of a 500-day radical reform plan discarded by both Russia and the Soviet Union, on the Congress agenda.
Yeltsin told the Kirov workers, for example, that they should transfer their plant, a major defense-industry facility, to the jurisdiction of the Russian government. That did not mean going from one set of ministerial bosses to another, he assured. The plant would be independent, with Russia's only involvement in the form of collecting taxes. The Russian prime minister delivered a similar message to striking coal miners.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's government is clearly worried by these developments. Since the miners' strike began on March 1, Mr. Pavlov and the president have refused to meet the strikers, until they return to work and drop political demands.
On Monday, Pavlov sent a letter to the Russian parliament blaming it for refusing to deal with the economic issues of the miners and attacking Yeltsin for encouraging "anticonstitutional and political demands." But shortly after that, Soviet Justice Minister Sergei Lushikov told the Soviet parliament that Pavlov decided to meet the miners on March 29, though only to discuss "economic questions."
The government showed its concern in another form by instructing the Moscow city government to ban all rallies, pickets, and marches in Moscow from March 26 to April 15. Security forces were ordered to ensure compliance with the resolution, but the Moscow city government, which is controlled by democrats, has already given permission for a March 28 rally.
All this is likely to amplify the atmosphere of confrontation inside the meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies. The balance of power between Yeltsin and his opponents is very delicate within the Congress, which only narrowly elected him as parliament head last June. The Communists have been strong enough since then to block or water down important reformist legislation sought by the Yeltsin leadership. They did so earlier this week when the regular parliament session threw back a draft bill to pr ivatize housing.
The agenda for the Congress session has three items on it - a report from Yeltsin and discussion of the draft new treaty of union and a new treaty for the Russian Republic. The first item was intended to be a platform for attack on Yeltsin, but he intends to turn it around, presenting his new economic program instead.
Yeltsin also hopes to use the referendum vote to push through the constitutional shift to a presidential system. The referendum question was phrased in general terms, and there still must be a Congress vote on the specific changes in the Constitution. By being directly elected president, Yeltsin hopes to undermine Communist strength in parliament, moving finally to call new parliamentary elections.
On the presidential issue, "it will be a real battle," says Mr. Sedikh. The Communists are seeking allies among deputies from the 16 autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. These republics, created out of smaller national groupings such as Tatars, have been wooed by the Communists with the promise that they would gain greater independence.
Yeltsin, trying to hold their support, told a rally last weekend in the autonomous republic of North Ossetia that residents would have a better life through support for a "united and sovereign Russia."