MOSCOW — The Kremlin's war against its political enemies hit the streets of Moscow on Tuesday, with dueling protest rallies in which the opposing camps accused each other of bad faith and dirty politics in advance of national elections Sunday.
The larger of the two demonstrations took place along the Kremlin walls, where Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov charged the politicians inside with trying to silence his growing centrist movement, which calls for greater state guidance of the economy.
"We have scared the authorities," the mayor told an orderly crowd that police estimated numbered 85,000. "We strike fear into their hearts because we declare that it is necessary to call to account all those who allowed lawlessness and stole the nation's wealth and money."
Across town, two pro-Kremlin and pro-market parties joined forces for a much smaller rally outside the state TV complex to accuse the Moscow mayor of stifling free speech. They had been unable to get permission for their gathering from the city police force, which is loyal to the mayor, and officers arrested 53 of the approximately 500 demonstrators and charged them with disorderly conduct, according to TV reports.
"Our protest was aimed at protesting the methods and means used by Luzhkov in his election campaign," said Olga Vasilyeva, spokeswoman for one of the parties, the Union of Right Forces. "We understand that even at today's pro-Luzhkov rally, people were rounded up by ridiculous methods."
Sunday's elections are considered an important test for the new centrist forces, as well as the opening act in a drama leading to the replacement of President Boris N. Yeltsin, who must leave office next summer.
The Kremlin--now popularly regarded as a small circle of insiders loyal to Yeltsin and eager to retain the perks of presidential power--has been trying for months to block the growth of the centrist movement, led by Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov.
For the most part, that war has been waged through a vicious and successful smear campaign on state television that has accused Luzhkov of corruption and other high crimes, and Primakov, who is 70, of frailty and old age.
Polls show that support for Luzhkov's Fatherland-All Russia movement has fallen drastically in the last two months, from 22% of the electorate in September to just 12% at the end of November, according to the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion.
Meanwhile, a new, Kremlin-sponsored rival, Unity--formed in October expressly to counteract Fatherland-All Russia--has sucked up much of that support and seen its backing climb from 5% of the electorate in October to 18% at the end of November. Vladimir V. Putin, the dizzily popular current prime minister whom Yeltsin has designated as his preferred successor, has indicated that he will be voting for Unity.
Television reports suggested that the police estimate of the crowd outside the Kremlin was exaggerated, and put the actual number somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000. Crowd counts were hampered by the early winter night.
Luzhkov is a candidate on Sunday in two different ways: His position as one of the leaders of Fatherland-All Russia will give him a seat in the Duma, parliament's lower house, if the party gets more than 5% of the vote on a party slate ballot. He is also running for reelection as Moscow mayor--a post to which he was elected in 1996 with nearly 90% of the vote.
More than three years later, Luzhkov remains immensely popular among residents of the capital and is credited with leading a rebuilding campaign and making Moscow the most prosperous city in the country.
"I would sacrifice my own head for Yuri Luzhkov if need be," said Vasily Barintsev, a 53-year-old driver. "Luzhkov is the best mayor. He does a great deal for people. . . . Maybe Luzhkov steals, like his critics say. But he does not steal as much as other leaders in Russia."
Others say Luzhkov's successes are a result more of the city's status as the federal center than of his mayoral acumen.
"I personally am totally indifferent to Luzhkov," said 38-year-old Lidiya Safronova, who said her boss in the city government ordered everyone in her office to attend the rally. "He is just like any other bigwig. No better, no worse. . . . Probably the only difference between him and the rest is that Luzhkov has so much money that throwing a handful or a few crumbs to the people will not make him go broke."
Luzhkov's major rivals are both backed by the Kremlin. One is Sergei V. Kiriyenko, the former prime minister widely blamed for devaluing the ruble 16 months ago and forcing many banks to fail, costing many Russians their life savings. He is also a national leader of the Union of Right Forces, considered the most radical pro-market party on the ballot. Current polls suggest that the party will have a hard time breaching the 5% barrier to make it into the Duma.
The third main candidate is Pavel P. Borodin, the Kremlin property manager at the center of a Swiss investigation into whether he and members of Yeltsin's family or entourage accepted kickbacks for Kremlin contracts. Borodin is running as an independent.
In an interview published Tuesday in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Borodin said he wants to be mayor "because I know the city, I live in it."
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.