The surprise disappearance and bizarre resurfacing of a long-shot Russian presidential candidate has provided a much-needed dramatic twist to an otherwise predictable presidential election campaign, the outcome of which is all but certain: Nobody suspects that President Vladimir Putin won't win re-election easily on March 14. The biggest question of the race so far surrounds the strange affair of Ivan Rybkin. The candidate of the tiny Liberal Russia Party, backed by self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky—a former ally and financier of ex-President Boris Yeltsin—Rybkin's odd, conflicting excuses for his five-day disappearance have left the Moscow punditry scratching its collective head, wondering which of various unlikely conspiracy theories are the most plausible. Few have anything good to say about Rybkin's recent behavior, least of all his own wife, whom he apparently forgot to tell about his Ukrainian adventure.
The fracas began shortly after Rybkin disappeared last week. He was last seen by his driver and bodyguard when they dropped him off at his Moscow home last Thursday. By Monday, prosecutors had announced an investigation into Rybkin's murder. An hour later, they realized there was no evidence of foul play and took back the murder suggestion. By that time, the manhunt was on.
On Tuesday, Rybkin suddenly surfaced in Kiev. Mystery solved? Not exactly. Rybkin said he'd simply needed a break from the campaign, so he turned off his mobile phone and visited some friends in the Ukrainian capital. As he told a Moscow radio station, "I left fruit and money for my wife, who is currently taking care of the grandchildren, changed my jacket, got on a train and went to Kiev."
Not even his backers bought that one. Among the more popular theories is that Rybkin's disappearance was a staged publicity stunt. One rival candidate called the explanation "inarticulate" and said Rybkin's antics were "a circus clown show" unsuitable for national politics. The reaction of Rybkin's wife, Albina, was even better, making Judith Steinberg Dean look like a regular Tammy Wynette. "Poor Russia, if this type of person tries to run the country," she told one reporter. "You mean your husband?" the journalist asked. "Yes," she replied. Clearly he hadn't left enough fruit.
Upon returning to Moscow, Rybkin changed his tune a little. In what the Associated Press characterized as a "a rambling, hourlong radio interview" with Ekho Moskvy, he hinted vaguely at a more sinister plot. Asked directly whether he'd been the victim of violence or an assassination attempt, he deflected the question: "I don't want to qualify it."
Rybkin was in London Thursday, consulting with Berezovsky, his chief financier. Speaking by telephone with the Interfax agency, he said repeatedly that he had been "forced" to stay in Kiev. After first suggesting that he might drop out of the campaign, Rybkin insisted Thursday he was still in the game and promised to reveal more details of his Kiev sojourn Friday.
At least that's one unknown in the election equation. Currently, the biggest worry for Putin—who remains genuinely popular, though it helps that he virtually controls Russia's main media outlets—is that too few people might turn up at the polls to validate the election. An editorial in the International Herald Tribune lamented Russia's descent into autocracy: A Putin landslide "might well make President George W. Bush jealous, but a lopsided showing by Putin is certain to stir memories of the long history of extremely successful showings by his predecessors in the Kremlin."
The election has left commentators grasping for literary metaphors: The Financial Times wrote that "Rybkin's absence transported Russia's often-bizarre politics into the pages of a novel by Nikolai Gogol, the country's master of the absurd," while a columnist in the Moscow Times said Russian voters' love affair with Putin, who recently rejected a proposed extension of presidential term limits, recalls Shakespeare's Richard III and Pushkin's Boris Godunov: "The crowd, incited by seasoned spin doctors—the Duke of Buckingham and Prince Shuisky—entreat the hero to accept the crown. He declines and even grows angry, but in the end he acquiesces."
For those determined to locate the grassy knoll, London's Guardian provided a handy overview of prevailing conspiracy theories. One of the more intriguing involves the trial of one Alexander Vinnik, "a little known political fixer" charged with arranging the murder of Sergei Yushenkov, a previous head of Liberal Russia, Rybkin's and Berezovsky's party. Yushenkov was one of the few politicians to openly question whether Russian security services were behind the atrocities that catapulted Putin to power and Russian into a new war with breakaway Chechnya: the bombing of apartment buildings in 1999, blamed by Yeltsin, Putin, and most Russians on Chechen terrorists. Dubbed a "show trial" by the Guardian, Rybkin is slated to testify in the Vinnik case.