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Rybkin mystery: Questions remain

Rybkin speaks to the media on his arrival in Moscow.
Rybkin speaks to the media on his arrival in Moscow.

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The disappearance of Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin was
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MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) -- An innocent abroad or a victim of "dirty tricks?" Judgments varied on Wednesday after would-be President Ivan Rybkin returned to Moscow from a five-day mystery absence saying he had been on an impromptu break in Ukraine.

His haggard appearance at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Tuesday night, his evasiveness and his strong hints that he had been under some sort of pressure only added to the mystery about his disappearance.

Press commentators said Rybkin, a fierce critic of Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin, was bound for political oblivion unless he could show he had been the victim of a "dirty tricks" set-up to discredit him and his financial backer, exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

"It's likely this story will mark the end of his participation in the (March 14) elections," the business daily Kommersant wrote. "That is unless Mr Rybkin can convince his colleagues and voters that he was not acting of his own free will."

Rybkin, a former speaker of parliament, appeared on Tuesday in neighboring Ukraine to the bafflement of aides and family in Russia who had triggered a police hunt by reporting him missing.

He said he had simply decided to leave the house on the night of February 5, without telling his wife, and travel to Kiev for a quick break, away from the political pressure.

He said he was with "friends" and had been "stunned" on Tuesday to learn of the fuss surrounding him back in Moscow.

That explanation triggered sniggers and innuendo in broadcast media in Russia, where the common explanation "he's gone missing" is a euphemism for a man on a prolonged drinking binge or a romantic escapade.

NTV television compared him to Styopa Likhodeyev, one of the heroes of Mikhail Bulgakov's surrealistic classic "Master and Margarita," who under diabolic black magic is spirited away to Yalta -- also in Ukraine -- and returns later, dazed, to Moscow.

Dazed and tired

At the airport Rybkin, a former negotiator with Chechen separatists, seemed pale and dazed and said he was tired. Railing against what he called "arbitrariness" in politics, he said: "I've come back feeling as though I have just completed a round of Chechnya negotiations. I am pleased to be back."

His comments led to speculation that Rybkin -- whose name derives from the word for "little fish" -- had fallen victim to a "dirty tricks" operation that he was too scared to disclose. According to this speculation, he may have been put under pressure to compromise himself and also Berezovsky, an arch-foe of Putin, in the eyes of Russia's electorate.

Another presidential challenger, liberal Irina Khakamada, said that if it was shown he had gone off on a personal impulse "he is not fit to be a politician and should quit the race." If coerced, she said, he should seek asylum in London and tell all.

Rybkin has been strident in his criticism of Putin, accusing him of crushing independent media and mismanaging the drive against Chechen separatists.

But, like the other challengers in the poll, Rybkin poses no real threat to the highly popular Putin's bid for a second term.

Commentators said Rybkin clearly had to come up with a more detailed account of his five missing days to save his political career -- though Berezovsky said this was now over and Rybkin himself said he might now pull out of the presidential race.

"Ivan Rybkin's behavior at the airport indicates he will soon have to give supporters and the public an intelligible version of events in which he does not appear a 'clown' but a victim of political machinations," said the daily Kommersant.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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