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Putin Reappears In Public, Jokes About Health Rumors

  • RFE/RL

After a long absence from public view, Russian Russian Vladimir Putin (right) resurfaced on March 16 to meet with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Almazbek Atambaev, in St. Petersburg.

After a long absence from public view, Russian Russian Vladimir Putin (right) resurfaced on March 16 to meet with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Almazbek Atambaev, in St. Petersburg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared in public for the first time since March 5.

Putin met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev on March 16 at the Constantine Palace outside St. Petersburg.

Referring to rampant speculation about his health and whereabouts during his unusually long absence from the public eye, Putin said: "It would be boring without gossip."

Atambaev said that Putin is "in excellent form" and had driven him around the palace grounds, adding: "He sat at the wheel himself."

In addition to speculation about the health of Putin, 62, his absence fueled rumors of deepening rifts in Russia's secretive political and security circles following the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin on February 27.

Amid Kremlin denials of health problems but no official explanation for his absence, an array of theories put forth about the reason ranged from the birth of a love child to a girlfriend of the divorced Russian leader and his ouster at the hands of Kremlin hawks in a palace coup to disease or even death.

Putin on March 16: "It would be boring without gossip."

Putin on March 16: "It would be boring without gossip."

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, commented sarcastically on the rumors after saying that Putin had driven Atambaev around for 15 minutes.

"So everyone has now seen the paralyzed president captured by a general who has just returned from Switzerland where he was delivering a baby?" Peskov asked.

Atambaev had a message for any ill-wishers of Putin: "They will wait in vain."

Putin, in a dark suit and necktie, looked relaxed if somewhat pale as he and Atambaev sat down to start their discussion.

In front of the cameras, he and Atambaev discussed the prospects for Kyrgyzstan's bid to join the Eurasian Economic Union, a four-nation grouping that is part of Putin's effort to strengthen ties and increase Russian influence in the former Soviet Union.

Putin said "the ultimate goal has to do with adapting Kyrgyzstan's economy to the economies of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia. All of these tasks are, obviously, attainable and the sooner we do it, the better."

Putin had last been seen at a news conference with visiting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on March 5.

The Kremlin had published photos and video of Putin at several meetings since then, but some Russian media say those were prerecorded.

Speculation mounted after Putin postponed a visit to Kazakhstan that had been scheduled for March 12-13, and a Kazakh official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that it seemed Putin was ill.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's office said on March 16 that the meeting between Putin, Nazarbaev, and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will be held on March 20 in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

Putin's return coincided with the start of a week of Russian celebrations of the anniversary of Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 -- a move condemned as illegal by Kyiv, the European Union, the United States, and many other countries.

Russia's seizure of Crimea and support for separatists whose conflict with government forces in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 6,000 people since April has badly damaged Putin's already clouded reputation in the West and ratcheded up tensions betwen the former Cold War foes.

Peskov said Putin does not currently plan to visit Crimea and that the Kremlin wlil announce such a trip if it is to take place.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, TASS, and Interfax
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