Mystery Surrounds Missing Russian Politician
Mon Feb 9,10:44 AM ET Add World - Reuters to My Yahoo!
By Oleg Shchedrov
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The bizarre mystery surrounding missing Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin deepened on Monday when a murder inquiry was opened and then quickly dropped.
The disappearance of Rybkin, 57, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin (news - web sites), on the night of February 5 injected drama into the run-up to a March 14 election in which Putin is widely expected to win easily, securing a second Kremlin term.
While Rybkin, backed by exiled entrepreneur and Putin foe Boris Berezovsky, has launched bitter attacks on the Kremlin chief particularly for his Chechnya (news - web sites) policy, his ratings are very poor. Like other candidates he stands no chance of unseating the highly popular Putin.
His wife, Albina, was quoted on Monday as saying she feared her husband had been kidnapped, but even Rybkin's political supporters were wary of jumping to this conclusion.
"He may have fallen, been robbed and killed, his body hidden. The other possibility is that it was an election trick, but it is not like him. The third option is linked to politics, but as far as I know he did not receive any threats," his election aide Lyudmila Ponomaryova said in televised comments.
Interfax news agency meanwhile quoted an unnamed Moscow police source as saying: "He (Rybkin) is alive and that is a fact. We hope to find Rybkin."
The police hunt for Rybkin took place against a poignant backdrop in Moscow as the Russian capital observed a day of mourning for the victims of Friday's bomb on the Moscow metro, with a heavy police presence on the streets.
At least 39 people were killed and more than 100 injured in an attack that Putin has blamed on Chechen separatists.
The mystery around Rybkin's fate grew when Russia's prosecutor general on Monday dropped a murder inquiry into his disappearance less than an hour after it was opened.
The Moscow prosecutor's office had earlier formally opened an inquiry of "premeditated murder" after conducting initial searches for him.
It was not immediately clear if justice officials were preparing to report a significant development.
A former speaker of the parliament's lower house, with a pro-market center-left line, Rybkin has cut a lackluster figure on a Russian scene dominated by larger-than-life political actors, despite his sharp attacks on Putin.
Despite his association with Berezovsky, he has always been regarded as a loyal and predictable pro-establishment figure.
Putin, who has not commented on Rybkin's disappearance, enjoys an approval rating of 70 percent or more in opinion polls and is guaranteed an easy victory over his six challengers.
But the lack of a real opposition, Putin's domination of the media and the risk of the March election looking like a Soviet-style poll have drawn expressions of concern from the West.
Visiting Moscow in January, Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) annoyed his hosts by writing in Izvestia: "Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government."
He expressed concern over the opposition's lack of media access. Rybkin and two stronger challengers -- leftwing economist Sergei Glazyev and liberal Irina Khakamada -- have all complained over poor access to the media, particularly television.
Rybkin was lately a co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party set up by Berezovsky.
Another co-chairman of the party, Sergei Yushenkov, was killed in April and six people were appearing in court on Monday charged with his murder.