MOSCOW — They are a motley crew-the former prime minister who had a heart attack during a political crisis, the fired interior minister, the general who condemned the Kremlin for giving up Eastern Europe without a fight, the leader of a region brought to its knees by strikes and the self-proclaimed polyglot who promises plentiful vodka for everyone.
But taken together, they are a powerful team of spoilers capable of denying Boris N. Yeltsin an easy slide into the Russian presidency June 12.
Under the rules of Soviet elections, a plurality of the vote is not good enough for Yeltsin--he must take at least 50% of all votes cast if he wants to claim his place as the first popularly elected leader of Russia.
And although former Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, considered the front-runner of the backfield, cannot hope for more than about 25% of the vote according to most predictions, the five together may manage to humble Yeltsin, once the unbeatable hero of the masses, and force him into a runoff.
"They have learned a lot of lessons," Sergei B. Stankevich, deputy mayor of Moscow and a specialist on American politics, said of Yeltsin's conservative opponents.
By fielding such a broad array of candidates, Stankevich said, "their main aim is to reduce the number of votes that the probable victor (Yeltsin) will get, and particularly to reduce them in certain regions, so that the legitimacy of presidential power will be in doubt."
Still, if that is the most they can hope to achieve, why, then, did each of the five contenders turn political kamikaze?
Ryzhkov, who was hospitalized with a serious heart attack in December and never got his job back, says he simply could not stand by and watch Yeltsin lead the country into catastrophe.
"Power should not be entrusted to people like him," Ryzhkov said of Yeltsin. "My opinion is that Yeltsin is an unreliable politician."
Ryzhkov lacks Yeltsin's popular appeal, but he has behind him the impressive organizational talents of the Communist Party, which efficiently gathered an estimated 3 million signatures to support his nomination, and he says he believes that he stands a real chance of winning against the virtual non-campaign that Yeltsin is running.
Under Yeltsin, life in Russia has only gotten worse and everyone knows it, Ryzhkov contends, with the cost of living shooting upward and the republic forced into a destructive conflict over who controls what with the Kremlin.
"If Yeltsin and his team stay in power," Ryzhkov has told voters, "the life of the Russian man is hardly likely to improve."
In contrast, Vadim V. Bakatin, the moderate interior minister who says he was fired in December for being too soft on Baltic separatists, agrees with Yeltsin on most points but turned down an offer to become his running mate because he finds the Russian leader "too confrontational," particularly in his relations with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Bakatin, with his regular features and fluent Gorbachev-ese on the need for carefully balanced reforms, has been repeatedly nominated for posts in the Soviet government, and his run in the Russian race appears to be one more case of bowing to the pressure of those who so insistently draft him.
Aman-Geldy M. Tuleyev, too, makes no pretense of running out of some great internal compulsion. As he tells it, he gained so much popularity for his capable handling of this spring's coal miners' strike in the Kuzbass region that local supporters simply up and gathered the 100,000 signatures needed before he could turn around.
Not so Albert M. Makashov, the colonel-general who charged into the campaign to push his law-and-order platform and assert the army's right to lobby for its own interests.
By far the most mystifying of the group is Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the self-proclaimed polyglot who held a six-hour news conference at the Russian parliament last month and argues that his knowledge of Turkish, German and French would serve him well when foreign leaders come to town.
"I will speak (with heads of state) tete-a-tete without a translator," Zhirinovsky says. "Gorbachev always has a translator. That is not one-on-one. But I can speak one-on-one."
Soviet analysts speculate that Zhirinovsky, who is also promising cheap, freely available vodka if elected, entered the race to give downtrodden Russian voters what they need most--comic relief.
Job Description: The office of the executive president of the Russian Federation, formally established in May, will give the victor in the June 12 election the power to appoint ministers, issue decrees, dismiss local officials and impose a state of emergency on troubled areas. Presidential decrees could be over-ruled by parliament, but only after a ruling by a newly created Russian Constitutional Court.
The president must be between 35 and 65 years old and can serve a maximum of two 5-year terms.
Keeping Up With Boris Here are brief profiles of the men challenging Yeltsin:
NAME: Nikolai Ivanovich Ryzhkov