Until this month, the Russian presidential campaign was an occasionally amusing but tightly scripted show. Comic relief was provided by independent candidate Sergei Mironov, who repeatedly stressed his support for the incumbent, President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, the Kremlin-dominated media gave Putin blanket and predictably positive coverage. Then the script took a sinister turn: first, a suicide bomber killed over 40 people in the Moscow metro; Putin blamed Chechen separatists. Immediately after, it emerged that Ivan Rybkin, an opposition presidential candidate who, like most Putin challengers, is polling in the single digits, had disappeared. Just the week before, Rybkin had taken out a full-page ad in the upmarket Moscow daily Kommersant that was sharply critical of the President. "Putin has no right to power in Russia," it said, claiming that Putin's business cronies were buying up media and oil assets. He followed that with a biting attack in the Wall Street Journal Europe, but before that article saw print, Rybkin vanished. When he finally resurfaced four days later, he claimed he'd been drugged and held against his will. Was Rybkin's disappearing act a desperate grab for publicity, or a sign that things in Moscow are getting ugly in the run up to the March 14 election?
When Rybkin told his story late last week at a press conference in London, where he had fled, it was the third version he had offered. In the first account, he said he'd gone for a rest in Kiev. The next day he'd told a confused story of constant surveillance by the FSB, the state security agency, and growing concern for his safety while in the Ukrainian capital. Now presumably free to speak the truth, although his wife and family remain in Russia he explained that it had all started late in January.
Rybkin's election platform, published that month, made peace in Chechnya his top priority (he was involved in negotiations to end the first Chechen war in 1996, and since the second war began in 1999, he has regularly called for talks with the rebels, something Putin opposes). Shortly after it was published, a Chechen acquaintance proposed a secret meeting with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. Rybkin says he was told that Maskhadov would meet him somewhere in Ukraine, so Rybkin left for the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Once there, he says, unknown men took him to an apartment and offered him tea and a snack while he waited. Then, Rybkin claims, he fell unconscious for four days. He woke up in a different apartment, where his captors showed what he called a "disgusting" video of him that had been shot while he was drugged.
His earlier versions of the story "did not reflect the truth and were made under coercion," Rybkin wrote in a statement released at his press conference. "I was trying to protect the safety of my family and of myself." He added that he took a blood test in London and a doctor "gave me a preliminary opinion that perhaps not only was something poured into my tea or added to the food, but also a gas mask was very likely used."
He made it clear he felt the Kremlin was complicit: "I don't know who kidnapped me," he said, "but I know for whose benefit it was done." He was also worried about the safety of his family. "From now on," he said, "if my granddaughter was to have her knee scratched I would accuse Mr. Putin."
The state-dominated media dismissed Rybkin's story. He had suffered a nervous breakdown or had simply been drinking in Kiev, they suggested. Others claimed he was being used by Boris Berezovsky, the London-based billionaire and bitter enemy of Putin who has been Rybkin's patron since the mid-'90s. "Rybkin is not just finished as a politician," said analyst Andronik Migranyan. "He is simply not a very bright man." Strategist Gleb Pavlovsky predicted he would garner a "big fat zero" in the elections.
Others, however, thought Rybkin's story plausible. Russian and Western observers with knowledge of the way the Russian security services work suggested privately that drugs could have been the cause of Rybkin's disorientation. Even a pro-Kremlin pundit, Sergei Markov, threw out the theoretical possibility that his disappearance may have been the work of rogue "middle-level members of the special [security] services." But no one could offer a plausible motive for kidnapping. Rybkin was never a threat to Putin's chances of re-election, but his allegations do underline a problem for the President. Putin will almost certainly win by a landslide in March, but the West is concerned about his apparent drift toward authoritarianism, and the Rybkin affair won't help. It once again raises the prospect that, with or without the President's knowledge, his men might be up to their old tricks.