THE BETTING IN Moscow now makes Acting President Vladimir Putin a shoo-in to win a five-year term as president in the special election March 26 -- a coronation, it's being called. President Clinton and his administration profess themselves delighted; it's all going according to the constitution, they say, so this is a great victory for Russian democracy. From the critics comes an opposing point of view: Because Mr. Putin is sure to win, this is no democracy at all -- it's a sham. Neither camp has it quite right.

Mr. Putin was a little-known bureaucrat until President Boris Yeltsin elevated him to the prime ministership last summer. He quickly made the most of his chance, soaring to become Russia's most popular politician -- in fact, its first genuinely popular politician in a long time. Russians' approval of him stems in large measure from his prosecution of a war against separatists in Chechnya. The Chechens are widely disliked within Russia; they are blamed for terrorist attacks against Russian civilians; and the Russian campaign has been portrayed in the media as competent and successful. This has cheered an electorate accustomed to weakness and bumbling in the Kremlin. Mr. Putin projects an air of calm command. He has made sure to pay overdue wages and pensions. And he has benefited from a small upturn in Russia's economy, the first in years.

Now, thanks to Mr. Yeltsin's surprise resignation on New Year's Eve, Mr. Putin is the acting president, well-positioned for the coming election. There's no question that much of his strength stems from undemocratic features of the Russian political landscape. The Kremlin and its allies control two of three national television networks, and use them brazenly to tear down political opponents and puff up allies. Mr. Yeltsin's resignation a half-year before the expiration of his term, while constitutional, was a kind of cheap trick; it pushed the election back from June to March, aiding Mr. Putin (Mr. Yeltsin's favored candidate) while his popularity remains high and giving opponents little time to mount a campaign. It was a short-circuiting of the democratic norms that Russia is just now seeking to institutionalize.

But it's also true that opponents will be free to run and campaign. Much can change in 10 weeks; the coronation may not be as automatic as now assumed. And if it is, the main reason will be that more Russian voters favor Mr. Putin than, say, liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky or Communist Gennady Zyuganov, both of whom are likely to run.

Many Americans may not like the result. They may worry, and with good cause, about Mr. Putin's appeal to nationalism and his willingness to build popularity atop the war crimes of his troops in Chechnya. They may be nauseated, again with good cause, by Mr. Clinton's everlasting justifications of Mr. Putin's war, as in his recent description of Russia's efforts to "liberate" Grozny, Chechnya's capital. But it's important to separate judgment about outcomes from condemnation of process. Mr. Putin is heavily favored now largely because he's most popular; that doesn't necessarily make him the best choice, but it doesn't make him a czar, either.