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Putin eliminates political opposition { February 8 2004 }

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February 8, 2004
Challenger to Putin for Russian Presidency Is Missing

MOSCOW, Feb. 8 One of Vladimir V. Putin's challengers in next month's presidential election is missing, and the police and security services announced today that they had begun a search for him.

Ivan P. Rybkin, a former Parliament speaker and national security adviser under Boris N. Yeltsin, has not been seen or heard from since Thursday evening, raising fears among his family and campaign aides that something dire had happened to him.

"We are trying not to let such ideas come to mind," said Aleksandr V. Tukayev, a campaign official and the deputy chairman of Mr. Rybkin's party, Liberal Russia, "but it is hard not to think about it."

Mr. Rybkin's whereabouts have added a bizarre drama to a torpid presidential campaign that is universally expected to end with Mr. Putin's re-election on March 14.

Mr. Rybkin, 57, has been one of the most unabashed critics of Mr. Putin and his policies, but like Mr. Putin's five other challengers he has struggled to build political support and get his message heard, especially on state television. In polls, he has fared even worse than the others, receiving the support of fewer than 1 percent of voters.

Mr. Rybkin's Liberal Russia has been at the center of political intrigue and violence ever since it was created in 2002.

Its patron is Boris A. Berezovksy, a businessman and former Kremlin insider, who has become one of Mr. Putin's fiercest critics after moving to London in self-exile to escape fraud charges he says are politically motivated. Mr. Berezovsky first raised concerns about Mr. Rybkin's whereabouts in an interview on Friday.

Mr. Rybkin did not appear at a scheduled news conference on Friday, his aides said. Nor did he surface to make any statement on Saturday, as would be expected, when the country's election commission officially registered his candidacy in the election.

A spokesman for the Moscow police said that Mr. Rybkin's wife, Albina, submitted an official statement today about his disappearance. She told the police that her husband had not been seen since he arrived at their apartment sometime after 7 P.M. on Thursday and let his bodyguards go home. He was not there when his wife arrived after 11, she said.

Under Russian law, a person is not considered missing until three days have passed. Mr. Tukayev said that given Mr. Rybkin's prominence, the authorities should have begun a search immediately.

"In any civilized country, all the security services would be on their feet," he said.

In the last 18 months, two of the members of Mr. Rybkin's party in the Parliament, Sergei N. Yushenkov, and Vladimir I. Golovlyov, have been shot to death on the streets of Moscow in murky circumstances.

Shortly before he was killed, Mr. Yushenkov split with Mr. Berezovksy and another party leader, Mikhail N. Kodanev, has since been charged with the murder. Party officials say he has been falsely accused.

While the election commission refused to let the party participate in last December's parliamentary elections, Mr. Rybkin's supporters collected enough signatures to qualify him for a spot on the presidential ballot.

On Saturday, however, the chairman of the election commission, Aleskandr A. Veshnyakov, said the commission had provided prosecutors with what he said was evidence that some of his qualifying petitions were fraudulent. If that is proven, prosecutors could still disqualify him as a candidate.

Two other presidential challengers Sergei Y. Glazyev, a leader of the nationalist Motherland Party, and Irina M. Khakamada of the liberal party Union of Right Forces were also cleared today to run. But they too now face investigations into the veracity of some of the signatures they collected, election officials told the Interfax news agency.

Kseniya Y. Ponomaryova, Mr. Rybkin's campaign chairman, said in an interview tonight that another party official had spoken with him by telephone at 8:40 p.m. on Thursday. By 10 P.M., he was not answering his mobile telephone. Albina Rybkin said today that when she arrived home on Friday night, she found that her husband had taken off a shirt and left dishes in the kitchen, but there were no signs of a struggle or violence. His cars were still in the garage.

She discounted the possibility he was aboard the subway train struck by a bomb on Friday morning, killing at least 39, since he does not routinely use the subway. She also discounted the possibility that he had left on his own. "It is absolutely not like him," she said.

Mr. Rybkin, an agriculture specialist and former Communist Party member, has been a prominent political figure since the collapse of the Soviet Union, first as an opponent of Mr. Yeltsin and later as a security adviser to him. Mr. Rybkin participated in the peace talks that end the first war in Chechnya in 1996 and remains an advocate of efforts to end the second Chechen war, now in its fifth year.

As a candidate, he has criticized Mr. Putin, saying he was an authoritarian who is closely linked to the wealthy businessmen who wield disproportionate control of the country's economy, so long as they remain in the Kremlin's good graces. In an interview last month, Mr. Rybkin said he was concerned about the erosion of democratic freedoms in Russia and the continued economic hardship of ordinary Russians.

"Russia," he said then, "is turning a new and very shameful leaf."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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