A Putin rival reappears after a curious absence

Rybkin says he took time off from hectic campaign

February 11, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - It began as tragedy and ended as farce.

Ivan P. Rybkin, the Russian presidential candidate whose baffling disappearance from his Moscow home last week made headlines, reappeared just as mysteriously yesterday.

The 58-year-old former national security adviser to former President Boris N. Yeltsin called Ekho Moskvy radio yesterday and breezily said he had taken a few days off from his hectic schedule to visit friends in Ukraine - without having told his wife, campaign staff or anyone else where he was going.

"I decided not to listen to the radio and TV," he added, to explain why he hadn't responded to the uproar over his absence.

Looking haggard, Rybkin arrived at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport shortly after 10 p.m. from Kiev. He told reporters that he "had to leave" Moscow abruptly on Thursday, but did not elaborate.

Russia's state-controlled NTV television compared Rybkin to a hapless character in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Marguerita who is magically transported from Moscow to the Crimea by the devil.

Just before he disappeared, Rybkin told his friend and ally Boris Berezovsky - perhaps President Vladimir V. Putin's most bitter foe - that he had been threatened by an organized crime group and thought he was being followed.

The morning before he vanished, he published a letter accusing Putin of enriching himself while serving as president. Rybkin's wife returned home to find an empty apartment. On Sunday, after the three-day wait required under Russian law, she filed a missing persons report.

Rybkin sounded unapologetic in an interview with Interfax before his return to Moscow.

"I have the right to two or three days of private life," he said. "Last week, I decided to take a break from the fuss around me. I left fruit and money for my wife, who is now occupied with the grandchildren, but didn't say anything to her, changed my jacket, got on the train and left for Kiev."

Ksenia Ponomaryova, head of Rybkin's election staff, told the Itar-Tass news service that she heard from her boss yesterday afternoon.

"Ivan Petrovich Rybkin called and said he had had a pleasant four-day trip to Kiev and could not understand why everyone was so hysterical," she said.

Some Russians were stunned by the development, others amused. A few were outraged.

"I am p----- off," said Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, "because the whole day I've been trying to explain why Rybkin's disappearance was an expression of tortured and treacherous Russian politics. Now I find out it's a gimmick! I don't know what to believe.

"It seems to me that he intended to make a sensation," she said. "He's not on Mars, he's not on the moon. He must have heard!"

The March 14 presidential elections, which Putin is expected to win by a large margin, are being mocked by Russians. People are asking, "Are you going to vote in Putin's election?"

Rybkin has ruined his credibility, Shevtsova said.

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