On Saturday, the Baltic republic of Lithuania is to undertake the closest thing to free elections the Soviet Union has seen since 1917. By most forecasts, Lithuania will be the first Soviet venue to vote an end to Communist rule, turning over control of the republic's government to a coalition in which newly legalized non-Communist parties and independents outnumber Communists.
The election is expected to clear the way for a formal declaration of independence, perhaps by April, and for negotiations with Moscow on Lithuania's future military and economic relationship with the Soviet Union.
Yet a visitor who expected to find the air charged with pre-election excitement, the populace dizzy with multiparty pluralism and imminent emancipation, would find instead most Lithuanians are calm to the point of nonchalance.
"It's like the weather," said Jonas Germanas, an electrical engineer from Kaunas who was waiting for a train at the Vilnius railroad station. "Who gets excited about the weather?"
For one thing, the biggest decision in Lithuanian political life, independence from the Soviet Union, has already been all but made.
Even candidates of the independent Communist Party of Lithuania, which broke from Moscow in December, support restoration of the independent statehood Lithuania lost in 1940.
They also seek the removal of Soviet troops from the territory and creation of a separate, free-market economy.
An aide to Algirdas Brazauskas, the Lithuanian Communist Party leader, said the official now favors the idea of making a free Lithuania neutral rather than part of the Warsaw Pact.
"Independence is not the issue," said the aide, Algas Zhukas. "Political independence has already been declared twice."
In May, the Lithuanian parliament declared its autonomy and said its decisions would supersede those taken in Moscow.
Two weeks ago, it voted to annul Lithuania's forced annexation into the Soviet Union in 1940.
Only a minority of candidates are campaigning against withdrawal from the Soviet Union, most of them Russians who belong to a Communist Party faction that has remained loyal to Moscow.
It is disparagingly referred to here as "the night party" or in the words of one editor, "the Ceausescu party."
About 500 candidates _ the numbers change daily because of last-minute withdrawals _ are competing to fill 141 seats in the republic's Supreme Soviet, as the parliament is known.
Anyone with 250 signatures was allowed to be a candidate.
The largest bloc of candidates, about 200, belongs to the independent Communist Party, which has adopted a platform little different from the Social Democrats.
Public opinion polls in January showed the party had regained much of its declining stature by breaking with Moscow.
But party leaders and outside strategists expect it to end up with a minority.