- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin has been reported missing less than three weeks after telling The Washington Times he worried about his safety as a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin.

News agencies reported from Moscow that Mr. Rybkin’s wife officially reported him missing yesterday and that police had called on FSB state security to help in the search.

Mr. Rybkin, a former speaker of the Russian parliament and top security aide to former President Boris Yeltsin, is among a handful of serious candidates running for president in the March 14 elections, which Mr. Putin is expected to win easily.

The Russian news service Itar-Tass reported yesterday that Moscow police have no evidence that Mr. Rybkin, who has not been seen since Thursday evening, was abducted or harmed. No one has contacted the Rybkin family or demanded ransom, a police office told the news agency.

A pro-Western liberal and ally of exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, Mr. Rybkin urged the United States to drop its support for Mr. Putin during a recent interview with The Times. He was in Washington last month for talks with Bush administration officials, lawmakers and scholars.

Asked whether he feared for his safety in challenging Mr. Putin, Mr. Rybkin said during the Jan. 21 interview that he had made a public pledge in 2002 to run for president if no other leading reformer entered the race.

“I am a Russian and I have to live in my own country,” he said. “Yes, people are fearful in the current environment, but I personally made a commitment and I am determined to be consistent.”

In that interview, Mr. Rybkin was harshly critical of Mr. Putin, saying the former KGB officer “was on his way to becoming a dictator.”

The United States and the West must drop their support for Mr. Putin, he said, or “you will be creating a big headache for everybody — for Russians but also for the international community.”

Mr. Rybkin has kept up his attacks since returning to Moscow, purchasing a full-page ad in the Russian business daily Kommersant accusing Mr. Putin and his associates of “state crimes” for cracking down on independent news outlets and critics.

The newspaper is owned by Mr. Berezovsky.

Mr. Rybkin has also been bitingly critical of Mr. Putin’s policies in Chechnya, where Mr. Rybkin helped to wind down the first separatist war as head of Mr. Yeltsin’s National Security Council.

Mr. Rybkin has also come to the defense of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin critic now jailed on fraud charges that many say are politically motivated.

Word of the candidate’s disappearance came on the day the Russian Central Election Commission approved Mr. Rybkin’s candidacy and those of five other challengers. With Mr. Putin’s popularity ratings reaching nearly 80 percent, he is expected to cruise to victory.

But the Bush administration and many European countries have expressed unease with the state of democratic and legal reforms under Mr. Putin.

On Thursday, the last day he was seen by his wife, Mr. Rybkin charged that officials from the state prosecutor’s office had searched his campaign offices and confiscated office computers.

Irina Khakamada, another liberal presidential candidate and Putin critic, said Mr. Rybkin’s disappearance was not surprising given the current climate in Moscow.

“No private security will help if certain forces and authorities decide to do something,” she told Reuters news agency.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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