THE Russian Republic's hastily prepared presidential election is proving to be more dramatic than expected, even before the candidates begin campaigning in earnest. A special session of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, the republic's supreme legislative body, is scheduled to begin a four-day session today. The primary purpose of the congress is to make the necessary changes in the republic's Constitution to form an executive branch of government. It will be the first time a top-level leader is elected by popular vote in the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was elected by the national legislature.
Boris Yeltsin, the leader of Russia's parliament, is considered an overwhelming favorite to win the Russian election scheduled for June 12. Mr. Yeltsin pushed the presidential proposal through the last session of the Russian congress in early April, saying the quick election of a chief executive was needed to protect the republic's interests in the ongoing power struggle with the Kremlin. An election victory would give Yeltsin added moral leverage in his dealings with Mr. Gorbachev.
Originally, only token opposition was expected to run against Yeltsin, who advocates a radical move to a market economy. But conservative forces in the republic, namely the Russian Communist Party, have shown they will not give up without a fight. Worried that they will be completely left out of the decisionmaking process if Yeltsin wins, the conservatives have thrown their weight behind former Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, an advocate of cautious reform and an opponent of private property.
In addition, an unknown force has made it clear it wants to prevent a Yeltsin victory. Early Thursday a powerful bomb destroyed the headquarters of Democratic Russia, a 1.5-million-member mass movement from which Yeltsin draws his political strength. Vladimir Bokser, a Democratic Russia leader, blamed the explosion on "fascist groups." But added he doubted the KGB, headed by hard-liner Vladimir Kryuchkov, was involved.
At the Russian congress, conservatives are expected to mount a bid to postpone the presidential vote, in hopes of giving either Mr. Ryzhkov or former Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin at least an outside chance of winning, says Sergei Filatov, a member of the Russian parliament's presidium.
"The candidates are starting on unequal footing," said Ryzhkov at a Saturday news conference. "Such a campaign needs more time, but the congress will settle this matter."
Though election day is less than a month away, the candidates have done little campaigning. Yeltsin has yet to hit the trail, while Ryzhkov last week made a one-day trip to the industrial city of Lipetsk in central Russia, where he faced severe criticism for the policies he advocated as prime minister. Mr. Bakatin only announced he was a candidate on Friday. Little has been heard from the minor-party candidates.
When the campaign heats up after the congress, it promises to be something totally unlike recent United States election efforts. Yeltsin aides, for example, say he will travel by regularly scheduled flights on Aeroflot, the state-run airline. And the candidates say they don't intend to run television commercials, widely viewed as the key to winning US elections.
Polling conducted by the Rossika independent center for social research on the presidential race confirm Yeltsin as the odds-on favorite, but the data also show Ryzhkov to be a viable candidate.
In a poll of 500 people from Moscow and the city of Efremov in the Tula region south of the capital, if given the choice of only Yeltsin and Ryzhkov in the election, 63.8 percent would vote for the Russian parliament leader and 32.8 would cast ballots for the former prime minister. The remainder was undecided.
Yeltsin is already a well established populist. Ryzhkov, on the other hand, will have to convince people that he is serious about winning and carrying out a realistic economic reform plan. Many top officials, including Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov and state television chairman Leonid Kravchenko, have already said they will vote for Ryzhkov. But the former prime minister won't say if he has the support of his once close political ally, Gorbachev.
To bolster his appeal, Ryzhkov selected Boris Gromov, the deputy interior minister, to be his running mate. Gen. Gromov was the last commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan and is reportedly the most popular general in the Army.
Yeltsin clearly isn't taking anything for granted, having selected Alexander Rutskoi, a Communist Party member and Afghan war hero, as his vice presidential candidate. Mr. Rutskoi is a leader of the "Communists for Democracy" faction of the Russian party. The selection is seen as an attempt by Yeltsin to divide the Communist opposition, trying to ensure a first-round election victory and avert a runoff ballot between the top two vote-getters on June 12.