Russian Presidential Candidate Lost and Found

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Moscow ( - A candidate in Russia's presidential election -- whose mysterious disappearance prompted speculation about political foul play -- has re-emerged, leaving red faces and an angry campaign manager.

Ivan Rybkin, a former lawmaker and critic of President Vladimir Putin, was "missing" for five days, sparking rumors of abduction or murder and enlivening an otherwise uninspiring presidential campaign.

Adding to the saga, prosecutors on Monday opened a criminal inquiry into the disappearance, at the request of Rybkin's wife, but a more senior prosecutor's office canceled the inquiry hours later, describing it as "premature."

The candidate's wife, Albina, told a newspaper she thought her husband's disappearance was an attempt to remove him as a challenger to Putin in the March 14 election.

Now, however, Rybkin has reappeared unharmed, without any clear explanation of his absence or why he remained silent for so long.

Until his return to Moscow Tuesday evening, Rybkin had been in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

Rybkin's campaign manager, Ksenia Ponomaryova, who had signed a missing persons report on Sunday, reportedly has resigned.

Amid ridicule from politicians and skeptics' claims of a cheap gimmick, the candidate has hinted that he may withdraw from the race.

Rybkin is closely associated with - and reportedly financed by - Boris Berezovsky, a controversial "oligarch" (tycoon) and opponent of Putin, now in exile in London.

Vladimir Pekhtin, the deputy speaker of the State Duma, voiced the suspicion the disappearance was "co-authored by Berezovsky, whom Rybkin in fact represents."

Rybkin never posed a threat to Putin, whom opinion polls indicate enjoys the support of some three-quarters of Russians.

Just before going "missing" last week, Rybkin was accused by state-controlled television of having falsified signatures required to register as a candidate in the election.

Russia's Central Elections Commission (CEC) said Rybkin's registration remains valid.

Interestingly, according to the CEC, disappearance cannot serve as a reason for canceling a presidential bid. A missing candidate could continue to run and, theoretically, even win an election.

The episode coincided with a trial at a Moscow court, in which six suspects are accused of murdering the leader of a political party called Liberal Russia last year.

Another Liberal Russia lawmaker was killed in 2002, evidently the victim of a contract hit.

Liberal Russia is backed by Berezovsky.

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