“It would be boring without gossip.” That, it seems, may be the only explanation the world will ever get from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, about his whereabouts for the past 11 days – an absence that launched a thousand rumoursof ill-health, childbirth or even a palace coup.
Putin, wearing a pink tie and in apparent good health, met with the Kyrgyz leader, Almazbek Atanbayev, in a St Petersburg palace on Monday, the first time he has been seen in public since 5 March.
Atambayev himself commented on the speculation during the joint appearance, telling reporters: “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] has just driven me around the palace, and was behind the wheel himself, so there would be fewer rumours. He’s not only walking, he’s driving his guests around.”
Russian television did little to dampen speculation when it announced on Friday that the meeting between Putin and Atambayev had already taken place, offering no video footage. The news item was later dismissed as a technical error.
Putin’s absence was made more suspicious by the Kremlin passing off as current events photographs from meetings that took place days earlier. A meeting in Astana with the president of Kazakhstan was cancelled, with local sources saying Putin had pulled out due to illness, and then denying it.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had declined to give any information about his whereabouts, initially insisting that the president was engaged in continual meetings and was still so strong that he was “breaking hands” with his handshake. On Sunday he had said “the topic is closed”.
The information vacuum has led to all manner of rumours: Putin was in Switzerland with his mistress who had given birth; Putin was being treated by a Viennese back doctor. Independent channel TV Rain was told by a source the president had flu, while others suggested he had retreated to think long and hard after a clan war had erupted between different branches of power following the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last month.
Putin has resurfaced at the beginning of a week in which major celebrations are planned to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. On Sunday evening, Russian television aired a long documentarydedicated to the events a year ago. In the film, Putin said he took personal charge of the Russian armed forces active on the peninsula, adding that nuclear forces were on standby had they been required.
On Monday morning, snap drills were announced for 38,000 troops serving in the north and west of Russia, presumably a further indication that the Kremlin is not willing to back down over the Ukraine crisis. Russia has continually denied its troops are active in Ukraine, despite evidence to the contrary. It also denied the “little green men” who appeared in Crimea were Russian troops, though Putin has now admitted that they were.
Source: The Guardian