Smiling Putin re-emerges to quash health rumours

Russian president Vladimir Putin resurfaced, smiling and looking his normal self after a 10-day absence from public view that fuelled a wave of rumours about his health.

Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev, who met Putin, 62, in St Petersburg’s ornate Konstantin Palace, referred to the swirling speculation about Putin by noting that the Russian leader was in good shape. He said Putin drove him around the palace’s park before the talks, adding that “the president of Russia not only walks, but speeds around.”

“It would be dull without gossip,” Putin retorted with a smile.

The Russian leader was last seen in public on March 5, when he hosted Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. The Kremlin said he continued holding official meetings after that. Putin’s decision to abruptly postpone a trip to Kazakhstan planned for last week fuelled speculation that he was unwell or isolated by a palace coup. A Swiss newspaper claimed that Putin had travelled to Switzerland, where it said his reported girlfriend, former Olympic gold-winning gymnast Alina Kabayeva, had given birth to their baby. The Kremlin has denied all those allegations.

Putin’s sudden disappearance from the public eye coincides with high tension in Russia’s domestic politics. Many Putin foes held him responsible for the February 27 killing of top opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, even as the Russian leader described Nemtsov’s slaying on a bridge in Moscow as a “disgrace” and a “provocation”.

Some observers have speculated that the arrest of five ethnic Chechens, including a senior police officer, suspected of involvement in Nemtsov’s killing signalled a fierce turf battle between Chechnya’s Moscow-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and top Russian officials from federal law-enforcement agencies who resent the feisty strongman.


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