Ivan Rybkin, a critic of Vladimir Putin and an ally of one of the Russian president's fiercest foes, dropped out of the presidential race Friday, nine days before the vote.
"I am withdrawing my candidacy, I will not participate in this farce," Rybkin said at a news conference just a little over a week ahead of the March 14 election, which Putin is widely expected to win in a landslide. Rybkin added that "working as an opposition candidate is very difficult."
He spoke after returning from a three-week trip abroad, having left Russia citing security concerns following a murky incident in which he went missing for days and claimed he was the victim of foul play.
On Friday, Rybkin again suggested he was the victim of some kind of politically motivated persecution in connection with his candidacy. "I expected pressure, but I did not expect such lawlessness," he said.
Rybkin was running in the election with the backing of self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a bitter enemy of Putin. His association with Berezovsky, one of the so-called oligarchs who made quick fortunes in post-Soviet Russia, and his lobbying for peace talks with Chechen rebels have made Rybkin an unpopular figure in Russian politics. Polls have suggested he would receive less than 1 percent of the total vote.
Rybkin's announcement came after a court rejected his complaint against the Central Election Commission over its decision to prohibit him from taking part in televised campaign debates via video link from London.
Rybkin had initially said that he would remain abroad until the election. He traveled to Britain, where Berezovsky lives, after disappearing for five days last month and then turning up in Ukraine. At first he said he had simply gone to Ukraine to take a break, but he then claimed he was lured there, drugged and made the subject of a compromising video.
Rybkin said he would not quit politics, pledging to speak out as if he were a candidate. In an apparent effort to display independence, he said he had not told Berezovsky of his decision before making the announcement.
Rybkin, a former parliament speaker and head of ex-President Boris Yeltsin's Security Council, was one of six candidates challenging Putin, but polls indicate a sweeping victory for the incumbent president.
The vote comes three months after the main pro-Putin party United Russia swept parliamentary elections following a campaign international observers said was unfair because of the government's use of the state-run media and other levers of power to influence voters.
Central Election Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov on Friday dismissed concerns from liberal candidates and other Putin critics that the president has benefited from lopsided media coverage. "Like it or not, any incumbent has certain advantages compared to other candidates," he told a news conference.
Veshnyakov said he expects turnout will reach at least 60 percent, clearing the 50 percent hurdle needed to make the election valid.
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