Russian candidate back in limelight withdraws from presidential race

Rybkin, missing 5 days last month, calls it a farce


MOSCOW - The Russian presidential candidate who mysteriously disappeared for five days in the midst of his campaign formally withdrew from the race yesterday, saying the coming election was a farce.

"It is extremely difficult for an opposition candidate to work in Russia," Ivan Rybkin told the Interfax news agency. "I expected pressure, but I didn't expect such absolute lawlessness."

Rybkin was expected to draw less than 1 percent of the vote in the election March 14. President Vladimir V. Putin, whose approval ratings are near 80 percent, is virtually assured of re-election to another four-year term.

Two other presidential candidates said they'd also considered withdrawing: Irina Khakamada, a fierce critic of Putin's, and Nikolai Kharitonov, who represents the Communist Party. They've charged that their election rallies have been blocked, and the Kremlin's tight control of the main television networks has made it difficult to get their messages seen and heard.

An opposition group known as the 2008 Free Choice Committee called for a public boycott of the elections and asked the four remaining candidates to drop out.

"If we take part in the elections," liberal politician Boris Nemtsov said, "we will be issuing a mandate for dictatorship in the country."

Earlier yesterday, the Russian Parliament overwhelmingly approved Mikhail Fradkov, 53, as prime minister. The little-known career bureaucrat, who had been serving as envoy to the European Union, becomes the first Jewish prime minister in Russian history.

In remarks yesterday, Fradkov promised tax reforms, a reorganization of the Cabinet and major reductions in the government bureaucracy. To the relief of Western investors, he confirmed that liberal economist Alexander Zhukov would be the sole deputy prime minister.

Remarking on his sudden elevation to the government's second-most-powerful job, Fradkov acknowledged that he'd "moved from the shadows into the light."

Shadowy could well describe Rybkin's movements over the past month.

Police launched a manhunt and a murder probe last month when Rybkin, 57, a former speaker of the Parliament, suddenly dropped from sight. When he surfaced days later in neighboring Ukraine, he said he had simply needed a break from the stress of campaigning.

He returned to Moscow but soon went to London, where he met with his backer, the self-exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky. Rybkin then changed his story about his disappearing act, saying he had gone to Ukraine to meet a Chechen leader about possible peace talks in the war-torn republic. When he went to an apartment for a clandestine meeting, he said, he had tea and sandwiches that made him drowsy.

Rybkin said he woke up five days later in another apartment with two armed men in the room. They played him what he called a "perverted" videotape of himself that was intended to compromise him. The men didn't threaten him, he said, but he got the message.

He said he would conduct his campaign from London and, fearing for his safety, wouldn't return to Russia until after the election. He was in Moscow when he announced his withdrawal yesterday.

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