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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 19:45 GMT
Russia's 'spy thriller' saga

By Peter Biles
BBC World Affairs correspondent

It was hard to know what to make of Ivan Rybkin's dramatic and bizarre appearance in London.

Ivan Rybkin
Mr Rybkin is not seen as a serious contender for the presidency
There was no way of verifying the story of his alleged kidnapping.

Was this the definitive version of a terrible personal ordeal, or perhaps just a huge publicity stunt?

Maximum publicity was certainly a factor. The news conference was held in a swanky hotel, close to Piccadilly Circus in the heart of London's West End.

For more than an hour, PR consultants and technicians fussed over the video conferencing facility that was supposed to ensure that Mr Rybkin was also seen live in Moscow.

However, the video link could not be established, and eventually the news conference went ahead, watched only by London-based correspondents.

In the background was the exiled Russian tycoon, Boris Berezovsky, who funds Mr Rybkin's Liberal Russia party, and - like Mr Rybkin - is a staunch critic of President Vladimir Putin.

Flanked by a gargantuan bodyguard, Mr Berezovsky hovered behind the line of TV cameras, listening carefully to Mr Rybkin's often passionate account of what happened.

Gaps and inconsistencies

Mr Rybkin claimed it had all been an effort to humiliate the political opposition in the run-up to Russia's presidential election on 14 March.

Later, Mr Berezovsky told BBC's Radio Five Live he had no doubt this was part of Mr Putin's election campaign, although he was not sure if Mr Putin himself had been involved in the kidnapping.

Ivan Rybkin with backer Boris Berezovsky on screen behind
Mr Rybkin and Mr Berezovsky are staunch critics of President Putin
There are however, many unanswered questions, as well as gaps and inconsistencies in Mr Rybkin's story.

He refused to be drawn about the content of "a compromising video" which he said had been made by "horrible perverts".

He was unclear whether it had been filmed while he was drugged.

Mr Rybkin was asked about the reports in the Russian media that his wife had said she pitied Russia if people like her husband were trying to become its leader.

He claimed she had been under terrific pressure during the election campaign, and that when he had kissed her goodbye, before coming to London, he had told her: "Don't believe those ruffians. I am much better than them".

And then he was gone. Off to conduct a round of radio and TV interviews.

Mr Rybkin will have raised his profile after today's "spy thriller" saga, but with a popularity rating of 1% in the presidential election, he will certainly have his work cut out trying to win over the voters from his self-imposed exile in Western Europe.

The BBC's Paul Welsh
"Ivan Rybkin says he can only tell the truth about his disappearance now he is in London"

Russian press ribs Rybkin
12 Feb 04  |  Europe
Russian democracy in question
08 Dec 03  |  Europe
Profile: Ivan Rybkin
09 Feb 04  |  Europe

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