A rival to Putin vanishes

Russia: Ivan P. Rybkin disappears after accusing the country's president of corruption. Some say he is hiding, others that he has been kidnapped or killed.

February 10, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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."

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