MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin took a lot of heat when he said 10 days ago that he wanted to call off early presidential elections. So naturally, the big question is, what was he getting at?
Various explanations suggest that it might have been a trial balloon, or it might have been a cunning political maneuver, or it might have been an offhand remark that reflected only what he wished could happen.
In any case, in an interview yesterday, he pointed out grumpily that no matter what he may have said, he hasn't done anything about it, and as far as Russia is concerned those elections are still scheduled to take place.
There was a secretive time here when what people said hinted at bigger doings, but now it's just the reverse. Politicians say plenty but act frugally. It's more fitting, anyway. This is a country in love with talk.
On this particular issue, Mr. Yeltsin got to talking toward the end of September. His showdown with the now-disbanded Parliament was coming to a boil, and finally he decreed that there would be elections to an entirely new legislature Dec. 12 and, for good measure, new presidential elections in June, even though his term runs until 1996.
And -- with the old Parliament having since been dissolved, bombarded and sent home or to jail -- those new legislative elections are indeed under way. But on Nov. 6, Mr. Yeltsin told a group of newspaper editors that although he didn't plan to run for re-election, he would just as soon serve out his full term.
Criticism poured down upon his head, from Russians and from foreigners, accusing him of reneging on a deal. His aides said it hadn't been a deal but an offer that, after all, had been spurned by a criminal and now-defunct Parliament, so why should he honor it?
But the remarks played straight to Mr. Yeltsin's image as a democrat with dictatorial inclinations.
"The president's lot is hard," he said in the remarks published in last night's Izvestia. "Outside government duties he has no right to hold private views, or express informal opinions or emotions in conversations with people he likes."
The decree setting a June election, he pointed out, "remains valid until I have rescinded it. But honestly, I have no heart for an early election just now."
He seemed to be suggesting that if there must be an early election, he would run again. And, on the other hand, the implication is that if the 62-year-old president could serve until 1996, he might be content with a single term.
So, just maybe, as he tried to suggest, his last zig before yesterday's zag was only wishful thinking. Or, as appearances would suggest, he may have been forced to back down on the question of early elections in the face of public criticism.
But this is Russia, so naturally there are more complicated views as well. One analyst, Alexander Pikayev, said he believed that Mr. Yeltsin was actually trying to make life easier for his allies who are running for the new legislature, or Federal Assembly. By saying something outrageous, he could allow those allies, led by Yegor Gaidar, to criticize him, which in fact they did.
This, in turn, would make Mr. Gaidar and his Russia's Choice bloc appear to be both independent of the president and fair-minded. And it would tend to drive all the various democratic groups, out of the 13 parties fielding candidates, together.
Most people believe that Russia's Choice and the other reform parties are in a commanding position as the elections approach -- although Mr. Yeltsin's arch-nemesis, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, former speaker of the old Parliament, has been nominated for a seat in the new legislature from a district in the Russian republic of Dagestan, even as he sits in prison.
But the Communists are still in disarray, divided over whether to participate, and the leading nationalists have been struck off the ballot.
Some have suggested that Mr. Yeltsin may have had another object in mind when he began talking about canceling the early presidential election. Conceivably, he was trying to deflect criticism of his proposed constitution, which is to be voted on in a referendum also held the same day.
That constitution gives the president sweeping powers. But if Mr. Yeltsin's foes could be distracted by his pronouncements on an early presidential election, they might lose track of the constitution, clearly a more important issue.
"I wouldn't deny that the draft constitution vests considerable powers in the president," Mr. Yeltsin said in the interview.
"What did you expect? In a country that is used to czars and strongmen; in a country where no clear-cut interest groups have yet taken shape and where the proponents of different interests have not been defined, and where normal parties are just being born; in a country with extremely poor discipline, where law commands little respect -- how can one stake everything on Parliament?
"If that happened people would be demanding a dictator within six months, if not sooner. And they would not have far to seek, I can assure you."
In Russia of all places, he said, a strong presidency is imperative.
"It would be downright imprudent to underestimate the communist-fascist threat," he said. "Too many people have been crippled by Bolshevik ideology. It has put down roots too deeply into the mentality of a certain part of the people. Our democratic system is too weak. The economic situation of the country is still too grave."