RUSSIA Putin challenger missing; authorities begin search

Two leaders of Ivan Rybkin's party have been killed in past months.
MOSCOW -- The Russian presidential campaign has taken a bizarre turn with the disappearance of a candidate regarded as one of President Vladimir Putin's staunchest critics.
Police and Russian state security agents launched a search Sunday for Ivan Rybkin, who has not been seen or heard from since Thursday, when his driver and bodyguard dropped him off at his apartment.
Like the other five challengers in the March 14 presidential election, Rybkin, 57, poses virtually no threat to Putin's expected re-election to another four-year term. The latest polls put Rybkin's popularity at just 1 percent and Putin's support at more than 70 percent.
Party members killed
However, Rybkin's disappearance is especially worrisome because two leaders of his party, the Liberal Russia Party, have been gunned down in the last 17 months.
Sergei Yushenkov was shot in the chest several times as he got out of his car and began walking to the entrance of his Moscow apartment building last April. In the summer of 2002, Vladimir Golovlyov was shot to death as he walked his wolfhound in a Moscow park. Both men were members of Russia's lower house of parliament.
The Liberal Russia Party was founded and bankrolled by Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled tycoon pursued by the Kremlin for several years on fraud charges. Last year, a London court refused the Kremlin's request to extradite him. Though Liberal Russia said it has broken ties with Berezovsky, the tycoon has been funding Rybkin's campaign.
Controversial ad
A spokesman for Rybkin's campaign, Viktor Kurochkin, said the Rybkin camp has seen a dramatic intensification of pressure from Russian authorities since Feb. 2, when Rybkin took an unprecedented swipe at Putin with a full-page ad he placed in the Berezovsky-owned Russian daily, Kommersant.
In the ad, Rybkin accused Putin of relying on intimidation and fear to govern the nation, calling the Russian leader's methods tantamount to "high treason." He also contended Putin amassed power through his strong ties to big business, calling him the "largest oligarch in Russia."
"Can such a person be the leader of a great country?" Rybkin's ad continued. "I'm sure that Putin has no right to stay in power in Russia, and we have no right to keep silent about that."
Kurochkin said Russian election authorities came down hard on Rybkin's campaign after the ad ran. Election authorities announced Feb. 4 that the share of invalid signatures on Rybkin's candidacy papers was about 14 percent, well below the 25 percent mark that would force a candidate off the ballot. At the time, authorities said the number of signatures that still needed to be verified was less than 2 percent -- not enough to put Rybkin above the 25 percent mark.
The next day, authorities revised the figures and said 26 percent were now invalid. After Rybkin's campaign staff vehemently disputed the revised figures, election authorities acknowledged their mistake and allowed Rybkin's name to remain on the ballot.
Search of headquarters
The night before Rybkin vanished, Russian investigators carried out a surprise nine-hour search of his campaign headquarters, seizing computers and arresting a campaign aide on charges of forging signatures.
"The attitude of the Russian Central Election Commission changed dramatically after Rybkin's ad appeared," Kurochkin said.

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