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Russia: Rybkin Resurfaces, But The Mystery Remains

Prague, 11 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ivan Rybkin, the Russian presidential candidate reported missing since last week, is back in Moscow after resurfacing in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Rybkin flew back to the Russian capital last night, answering one question hanging over his disappearance -- that he is alive. But other questions about his case remain unanswered.

Rybkin's disappearance on 5 February -- first brought to attention by his wife, Albina Rybkina -- sparked speculation he might have been kidnapped to take him out of the electoral race -- or that it was a bizarre publicity stunt to boost his campaign.

Then yesterday, he called his campaign manager from Kyiv to say he had gone away for a short break. When he'd finally read the newspapers yesterday, he said, he was stunned at all the fuss.

But when he arrived at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport last night, looking tired and wearing dark glasses, Rybkin said nothing about a vacation. Instead, he gave reporters vague answers that appeared to indicate his absence had been against his will.

First, a reporter asked if he is going to quit the race for the presidency. "Such thoughts have been going through my mind," he answered, before adding:

Rybkin: I have never seen or felt such arbitrariness in 15 years in politics.
Reporter: What do you mean by arbitrariness?
Rybkin: Arbitrariness is the same in Africa, the only difference is that people get eaten there.
Reporter: Arbitrariness by whom?
Rybkin: There is nothing to talk about. I have just come back as if returning from tough negotiations with Chechens, and I am happy that I am back.
Reporter: Were there other possible outcomes?"
Rybkin: I don't know, probably there were.

Rybkin, a former speaker of parliament and negotiator with Chechen separatists, was then asked if he had been held in Kyiv against his will.

Rybkin: It's very difficult to hold me, but I think there are good people in Kyiv to whom I am grateful.
Reporter:What happened? Your wife was worried and filed a missing person's report.
Rybkin:No comments. I felt sad that my daughter cried over the phone. Thank God I am here, in my homeland. I am not going to talk about anything more and will not be commenting.
"I have never seen or felt such arbitrariness in 15 years in politics.... Arbitrariness is the same in Africa, the only difference is that people get eaten there."

Rybkin, a senior figure in the Liberal Russia party, is not considered a serious challenger to President Vladimir Putin in the March presidential poll.

If his absence was a publicity stunt designed to boost his campaign, it appears to have backfired.

Boris Berezovskii, the self-exiled tycoon who is Rybkin's main political backer, said his career may be over. If it was all simply an escapade, Berezovskii said, then Rybkin "no longer exists as a politician."

But he added that the incident was "not at all like" Rybkin.

And enough questions still surround Rybkin's absence, his sudden reappearance, and his vague explanation to keep the mystery alive.

Rybkin had complained more than once before his disappearance that he was being followed.

Acting Liberal Party chairman Viktor Kurochkin told the newspaper "Noviye izvestiya" today that, on one occasion, Rybkin's driver took a large detour to shake off a car that had been following them. This shows, Kurochkin said, that Rybkin felt his life was threatened.

Rybkin hasn't offered any further explanations today about the incident.

Rybkin, a vocal critic of Putin, was scheduled to take part in a televised debate tomorrow with other presidential candidates.