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A rival to Putin vanishes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOSCOW - Call it a real-life election-year thriller, or the case of the vanishing candidate.

Ivan P. Rybkin, an urbane politician who was once the Kremlin's national security adviser, launched a seemingly quixotic campaign in December to unseat Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in March elections. On Thursday, in an open letter in the newspaper Kommersant, Rybkin accused Putin of secretly making himself rich in the job and named the president's alleged accomplices.

Later that day, Rybkin vanished. He has not been seen since.

Rybkin's wife, Albina, had come home about 10 p.m. Friday and found dishes in the sink and her husband's shirt. But he was nowhere to be found. Over the next few days, Rybkin, 58, failed to show up for scheduled appearances.

On Sunday, after the three-day wait required by Russian law, she filed a missing person report. And authorities began their hunt.

Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said yesterday that several theories about the incident were circulating in Moscow political circles: Rybkin, who once served as speaker of Russia's Duma, or parliament, could be hiding, to dramatize his accusations against Putin. He could have been arrested. He could have been kidnapped. Or he could have been murdered.

Whatever the truth, she suggested, the case shows how jaded Russians are about the presidential contest.

"My hunch is that if an American candidate disappeared, not only all American media but all police forces would immediately have been out searching for him," she said. "But in the disappearance of Mr. Rybkin, everyone was calm. Things went on as usual."

More than one politician has been murdered here - members of the Duma have been assassinated at the rate of about one a year since 1994. Perhaps because of this, no one seems to regard the Rybkin case as particularly shocking.

"People don't perceive the election as an election, but as a game" between the Kremlin and its foes, Shevtsova said. In this cynical view, Rybkin is an expendable pawn.

At Rybkin's election headquarters, the mood yesterday sounded more upbeat.

"I feel he is still alive," said an aide, lawyer Ludmila Baranova. She believes the candidate has been kidnapped by political foes and that he could be released soon.

Looming figures

For armchair detectives, the case is a daunting one. There is, if anything, a surplus of clues and suspects, but two figures loom over the case.

One is Putin, the former KGB lieutenant colonel. In an interview with The Sun in November, Rybkin said that under Putin, intelligence officers and other security officials were ruling the country.

"The special services are carrying out a special operation at the level of the country," Rybkin said. "They were taught to solve problems in a short time, with force. And they act as they have been taught."

Many critics have accused Putin of running a so-called Chekist government, named after the Bolsheviks' first security agency. But Rybkin recently began accusing Putin of something new - personally profiting from his Kremlin post.

Yesterday, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an interview Rybkin gave hours before he vanished, in which he alleged that money was pouring into several companies with ties to Putin.

Rybkin named three other men he described as Putin's friends, and whose dachas adjoin outside St. Petersburg. One man is in the oil business; the other two own a bank with a major interest in Russia's NTV and ORT television networks.

Rybkin began making the accusations about two weeks ago. On Jan. 28 and 29, Rybkin said, his offices in Moscow were searched by the Russian general prosecutor's office. Investigators seized two computers and sealed several safes.

"I started to feel this pressure right after I raised these issues," Rybkin told Novaya Gazeta.

Shevtsova called the timing of Rybkin's disappearance suspicious. "First he says nasty things about Putin. The next day he disappears."

But she said it would be foolish for Russian security forces to kill someone the day after he launched a political attack on the president. "Of course, nothing can be excluded," she said. "But it's a stupidity."

The other major figure lurking in the background of the case is Boris Berezovsky, the former Kremlin power broker. Once Putin's political patron, Berezovsky has become the president's most determined and powerful foe.

The billionaire bankrolled Rybkin's branch of the Liberal Russia party. And Rybkin is widely regarded as Berezovsky's representative here.

Perhaps Berezovsky engineered Rybkin's disappearance so he could pin the blame on Putin, Shevtsova said. Machiavellian? Of course, but so is Russian politics, she said.

"Berezovsky is known as a ruthless, aggressive and very talented spin doctor," she said.

Last night, Berezovsky denied any role in the disappearance.

"Rybkin is not just my friend," he said. "He's the godfather of my son."

The billionaire said Rybkin flew to London last Tuesday to meet with him and talk about the election. He said Rybkin was nervous. "He told how he was being all the time watched by the FSB," the successor to the KGB, Berezovsky said.

Berezovsky said Rybkin told him about a mysterious phone call from someone claiming to work for the "Tambov regional government." (Tambov is a city about 200 miles south of Moscow.) "Hello, Ivan," a voice said. And then the caller remained silently on the line.

When Rybkin checked, he found that no one from the administration had called him. But he felt he had cause to worry. One of Russia's most powerful organized crime groups is known as the Tambov gang.

Conspiracy and rumor

There are other tantalizing theories.

Yesterday marked the opening of the trial of four suspects in the killing last April of the respected member of parliament Sergei Yushenkov, who had split with Rybkin's branch of the Liberal Russia party a few months before his death.

Mikhail N. Kodanev, a member of parliament and a ranking member of Liberal Russia, has been accused of ordering the killing. But Rybkin alleged that the charges against Kodanev were politically motivated, that whoever had killed Yushenkov was trying to pin the blame on the party.

Rybkin was to have been called as a witness, Berezovsky said.

The investigation into Rybkin's disappearance took odd twists yesterday as rumors swirled that Rybkin would soon appear. He never did.

The office of Russia's general prosecutor told the state-controlled Itar-Tass news agency that it was opening a homicide investigation in the Rybkin case. Minutes later, the wire service reported that the investigation had been called off.

The Russian news agency Interfax reported that Rybkin was in a sanatarium outside Moscow. That set off a frantic round of phone calls from reporters. Still, Rybkin could not be found.

If and when Rybkin turns up, he might find himself kicked out of the race. On Sunday, the elections commission said it was investigating whether Rybkin and two other candidates had broken the rules in gathering the 2 million signatures needed to secure a place on the ballot.

The case has not done much for the reputation of Russian politics. But it has gotten people to talk about the presidential race, which Putin is expected to win in a walk.

Most major political figures have shunned the election, and Putin's approval ratings have recently drifted above 80 percent, according to the independent VCIOM Analytic Agency.

The ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, a perennial favorite of perhaps one-fifth of the voters, declined to run.

"No one has enough authority" to compete with Putin, said Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party has supported most of the Kremlin's programs in parliament.

Instead, Zhirinovsky let his bodyguard, Oleg Malyshkin, enter the race. The 52-year-old former boxer has gold teeth and a quick temper; he traded blows with opponents during a live television debate in the run-up to Duma elections in December.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who came within a few percentage points of beating President Boris N. Yeltsin in 1996, also chose to sit on the sidelines. Instead, his party backed an obscure former collective farmer, Nikolai Kharitonov, 55, to challenge the colossus of the Kremlin.

Putin's most formidable challenger might be Sergei Y. Glazyev, a 43-year-old economist and former Communist. His nationalist Motherland Party came out of nowhere to claim 37 of 450 seats in the Duma elections.

Motherland received generous coverage on state-controlled television. Analysts say it was part of the Kremlin's strategy of undermining the communists, who lost more than half their Duma seats in December.

But a VCIOM opinion poll reported Jan. 26 that, when asked whom they would vote for if the election were held in a few days, 67 percent of those surveyed picked Putin. Twenty percent said they had "no preference," and 4 percent backed Glazyev.

Rybkin didn't reach 1 percent.

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