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Putin Back In The Saddle, But Doubts About Absence Remain

  • Daisy Sindelar

Russian President Vladimir Putin's meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow on November 16 ended a prolonged withdrawal from public life that has led to lots of speculation about his health.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow on November 16 ended a prolonged withdrawal from public life that has led to lots of speculation about his health.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looked calm and in control on meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the airport on November 16 before launching into a series of contentious talks on everything from business ties to Russia's human rights record.

Dressed in a smooth black suit, walking comfortably, and even occasionally laughing, Putin appeared eager to stifle simmering speculation about his health following a prolonged withdrawal from public life a mere five months after his return to the presidency.

Over the past several weeks, Putin has canceled or postponed five foreign trips, including visits to Pakistan and Turkey.

He also put off his annual call-in program with the Russian public, and has spent more than a month largely confined to his private residence in Novo-Ogaryova outside Moscow.

Kremlin officials have been largely tight-lipped on the reason for Putin's cocooning, saying only that the 60-year-old leader is suffering from back pain. Video footage from recent months shows Putin moving stiffly and with evident pain.

No one appears to begrudge the notoriously fit Russian president a momentary lapse in health.

But to some, Putin's underexplained absence was beginning to draw unappealing comparisons to countries like Cuba and Turkmenistan, where ailing leaders still enjoy near-complete privacy as they approach the end of their days.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says Putin's return to public life was inevitable if he wanted to squelch speculation that he was hiding a serious illness behind a Soviet-style news blackout.

"He had to make an appearance because we were already starting to hear the kinds of conversations that you usually only hear in authoritarian, totalitarian regimes. 'What's wrong with the boss? What's with the chief? For some reason he's not around,'" Oreshkin says. "This kind of thing doesn't happen under normal conditions, under normal governments. There, if something happens to the top political figure, it's not a secret. In one form or another it gets discussed and decisions get made."

Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev became the latest spokesman to vouch for the president's health.

There was "nothing serious" about Putin's condition, Medvedev assured reporters, adding, in his lawyerly way, that he was "not a doctor."

Rumors Are Rife

Putin's month in the shadows does not seem to have set back his professional agenda. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, says the president is maintaining a "working schedule."

But in a country rich in conspiracy theories, there is ample online speculation that the presidential absence is about more than a backache.

Russians are accustomed to thinking of Putin as an abnormally fit man with a penchant for derring-do.

Russians are accustomed to thinking of Putin as an abnormally fit man with a penchant for derring-do.

Some have suggested Putin is recovering from a heart attack. Others that he is plotting a purge of his political ranks. A few, looking at the president's rosy mien at the press conference with Merkel, may even be pressed to believe the past month may have been spent recuperating from plastic surgery.

But regardless of the reason, there are concrete concerns that any future no-shows could have serious consequences.

Investors have expressed alarm that the mystery over Putin's health may exacerbate foreign doubts about Russia's business climate.

And European officials have reportedly expressed frustration at speculation that Putin may not be able to attend next month's EU-Russia summit, which is expected to focus on critical energy issues.

Tough Exterior

The presidential absence may also be distressing among ordinary Russians, many of whom are accustomed to thinking of their president as an abnormally fit, abstemious man with a black belt in judo and a penchant for derring-do.

Putin, famously, has tranquilized wild animals, plunged watery depths for ancient treasure, and even piloted a motorized hang glider in an attempt to fly with endangered cranes -- the very stunt that some suggest may have inflamed his back pain.

Sociologist Boris Dubin says even Russians who disagree with his politics may find Putin a refreshing alternative to alcohol-tinged, myocardial leaders of the past like Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Brezhnev.

Despite a deep sense of personal privacy, Putin is a far more visible -- and self-aware -- leader than his predecessors. He has been photographed shirtless, is linked by the media to a young mistress, and is believed to have already undergone at least one round of plastic surgery last year.

Such efforts, Dubin suggests, may indicate that Putin's immense political power is dependent on maintaining his image as an athletic, attractive man -- a fact that may unnerve him as his body continues to suffer the ordinary pitfalls of aging.

"It's not just that he's a healthy and physically fit person. He also tries a bit too hard to demonstrate that he's healthy," Dubin says. "I'm not a psychoanalyst, but I suspect that he's not entirely comfortable with this [athletic] identity. There are certain moments of insecurity with his image."

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