MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin said yesterday that he will not seek another term, but he backed away from his promise to hold a presidential election next year.
"Everybody knows how many blows of fate I have already suffered," he said. "It is too much for one man to sustain."
But just when he would step aside was unclear. He said his main task in the interim would be "finding and educating" his successor.
"The next elections are going to be difficult for any candidate," he declared.
While promising to retire, Mr. Yeltsin appeared prepared to break his pledge to hold an early presidential election June 12, the Interfax news agency reported.
He had used the promise of such an election to help justify his dissolution of Parliament on Sept. 21 and call for new parliamentary elections on Dec. 12 -- a fateful decision that led to a bloody standoff with hard-line lawmakers.
"I'm against holding the next presidential election in June 1994," Interfax quoted Mr. Yeltsin as saying. "I favor the presidential mandate being used to the full, until 1996."
Mr. Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president, was elected in 1991 to a term expiring in 1996.
Rival politicians quickly denounced Mr. Yeltsin's backpedaling, pointing out his earlier promise.
"He cannot cancel his decision on holding a presidential election June 12 any more than he can cancel the election to the Federal Assembly," said Konstantin Borovoi, leader of the Economic Freedom Party, "because that is his commitment to the citizens of Russia and the world community."
Viktor Aksyuchits, leader of the Russian Christian Democratic Movement, was one of the members of the former legislature who defied Mr. Yeltsin by remaining in the Parliament building until forced out by a tank attack Oct. 4. He said early presidential elections were the only way Mr. Yeltsin could defend those actions.
"Unfortunately, Yeltsin has simply deceived everybody in this way, as he has done in many others," Mr. Aksyuchits told Interfax. "Many, including myself, did have the apprehension that that was a trick, a card that would be played and then thrown aside, and that's what happened."
The unpredictable Mr. Yeltsin, who often drops major announcements in offhand conversations, startled many Russians with his latest comments.
Some of his close aides, however, had been sending signals that Yeltsin had every right to hold off on an early presidential election.
"Boris Yeltsin has the moral right to cancel his decree on June 12 elections for the head of state," Sergei Filatov, Mr. Yeltsin's chief of staff, said just hours before Mr. Yeltsin made his comments to hTC the newspaper editors. "But, responding to his own moral principles, the president will not take this step."
On Friday, U.S. officials said they would not press Mr. Yeltsin to proceed with early elections.
A new Russian constitution gives the Parliament the right to set early presidential elections if it wishes. The constitution is to be submitted to referendum Dec. 12, when the parliamentary elections are held.
Mr. Yeltsin's surprise announcement came as the slate of candidates for the Russian Parliament was being sealed.
Last night, a host of newly created political parties was scrambling to meet a deadline to submit petitions to qualify for the December election.
Each party needed 100,000 signatures to get its candidates on the ballot, and there were signs that all was not going smoothly.
List reported stolen
Nikolai Ryabov, the head of the electoral commission, said that a list of signatures collected by a hard-line group, the Russian All-People's Union, had been reported stolen from the party's offices.
A leader of the liberal Russia's Choice party requested an extension of the deadline so the hard-liners would not suffer because of the theft -- an impulse that suggests that perhaps democracy is taking root more quickly than many would have suspected.
The election campaign kickoff today coincides with the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
For the past two years, Mr. Yeltsin's die-hard Communist opponents have observed the day with rallies in Moscow, but this year, city officials have banned demonstrations. Some hard-line leaders have vowed not to respect the ban, and police yesterday were preparing for riots.
Some of Mr. Yeltsin's advisers have argued that early presidential elections could contribute to instability after the recent tumultuous political events. There is no heir apparent to Mr. Yeltsin, Russia's most popular politician.
End of historic period
His departure from political life would abruptly end a period of Russian history that has veered from the euphoric to the near catastrophic, and back again.
Mr. Yeltsin was the man who was driven from the Communist Party's ruling circles in disgrace by accusers like Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who said Mr. Yeltsin was pushing for too much reform too fast.
This same Mr. Yeltsin impulsively jumped atop a tank sent to depose Mr. Gorbachev in August 1991, saving the unsteadily emerging Russian democracy.
And it was Mr. Yeltsin, again, who called out the tanks to suppress the stubborn, hard-line opponents holed up in the Russian Parliament building last month, in a crisis some Russians feared would lead to all-out civil war.
Ruling by decree
Since Parliament was disbanded, Mr. Yeltsin has ruled by decree, making monumental changes with the stroke of his pen. Just the other day, he decreed Russians could buy and sell property.
His defenders point out that Mr. Yeltsin's authority has been confirmed by voters.
"President Yeltsin was elected by the entire nation," Andrei Kozyrev, the foreign minister, said yesterday, "and his mandate was confirmed at April's referendum [on economic reforms]. This is the maximum of what a president can have in any normal country."
Yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin, who is 62 and not always in the best of health, made it clear that he, too, accepted his position as a transitional figure.
Search for successor
There are no obvious successors. Russia's second-most popular politician probably is Grigory Yavlinsky, an economist who once advised Mr. Gorbachev. In a recent opinion poll, only 8 percent of the respondents said they would vote for him for president.
Another prominent politician, Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, got 2 percent.
The Russian president needs more time to guarantee reform and peaceful evolution, Mr. Kozyrev said yesterday.
"I think we can give our president the opportunity to lay foundations for a new order and a stable life," he said.
Then again, there's no guarantee Mr. Yeltsin won't change his mind and run again. He is a man who is at his best amid the worst political confusion.