Putin laughs off 'rumours' over his 10-day absence

Marina Korenava
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Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he attends a meeting in Saint Petersburg, on March 16, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he attends a meeting in Saint Petersburg, on March 16, 2015 (AFP Photo/Anatoly Maltsev)

Saint Petersburg (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday laughed off days of frenzied "rumours" over his health and whereabouts as he reappeared in public after an unusually long 10-day absence.

Emerging after days of speculation that he was either ill or had even been deposed in a palace coup, Putin met with the leader of ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan just outside Saint Petersburg.

The typically tardy Putin was two hours late but showed up looking relaxed with no visible signs of ill-health, quelling the rumours that had nevertheless highlighted the fragility of Russia's tightly-controlled political system dominated by one man.

"We would be bored if there were no rumours," Putin said as he met Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev at the sumptuous Konstantinov's Palace outside Saint Petersburg.

In an apparent bid to prove Putin was fit, Atambayev said the Russian leader had taken him for a drive around the palace grounds before their meeting.

"In their dreams," said a smiling Atambayev, referring to the rumours the president was sick.

- 'Paralysed and captured' -

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who has had to fend off countless questions from the media in recent days over the leader's absence, took delight in mocking the rumours.

"So everyone has now seen the paralysed president captured by generals who has just returned from Switzerland where he was delivering a baby," he quipped.

"We no longer want to talk about this. Everything is good."

But observers said the reaction to Putin dropping off the radar for a few days underscored the brittleness of the personality-based political system he has created after emasculating all forms of open opposition, whether in parliament, business or the major media.

"In countries where the regime is based around one person the leader's health is more important than oil prices or other exported resources," the liberal daily Vedomosti said in an editorial.

The usually omnipresent Putin, 62, had last been seen in public on March 5 at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

The rumour mill went into overdrive when he cancelled a number of scheduled events last week, including a trip to the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan and the planned signing of an alliance agreement with the breakaway region of South Ossetia in Georgia.

While the Kremlin kept releasing footage of Putin in meetings, many speculated that the footage had been filmed much earlier than when it was broadcast.

The Internet and foreign media lit up with speculation that Putin had died, had been deposed or that his rumoured girlfriend, a former Olympics gymnast, had secretly had a baby in Switzerland.

Morbid jokes and gags spread on Russian social networks -- one of the last bastions of free speech in Russia -- and the hashtag #Putinumer (#Putindead) trended on Twitter.

"Has Putin died?" asked one website where the question was the only thing appearing on a blank page above a button which users could click to check, yielding responses such as "No" and "Still No".

-'Putin still in charge'-

Social networks greeted Putin's appearance with a fresh dose of humour.

"White smoke billows from the Kremlin. Putin still in charge," Ian Bremmer, a US political scientist, quipped on Twitter.

Independent Internet TV channel Dozhd (Rain) quoted sources as saying the Russian president had been knocked down by the flu and retreated to his residence on Lake Valdai in the north. The Kremlin refused to confirm the report.

Putin's reappearance comes as Russia marks the one-year anniversary of a referendum in Crimea that was part of Moscow's takeover of the Ukrainian Black Sea province, a move that triggered a breakdown in relations with the West and heralded a bloody rebellion by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

Putin's disappearing act also came amid a febrile political atmosphere in Moscow after the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the most shocking assassination of Putin's 15 years in power.

Some observers suggested that Putin took the time out to deal with infighting among political and business elites over Russia's confrontation with the West and the economic crisis sparked by Western sanctions and falling oil prices.

One of Russia's best-loved authors, Boris Akunin, said the over-the-top reaction to Putin's absence showed that some people felt only his death would lead to real reforms in Russia.

However, he wrote in his blog, he didn't "want the authoritarian regime in Russia to collapse just because Putin disappears of his own accord (or as a result of a palace coup)."

"I want the authoritarian regime to be replaced as a result of people's conscious choice, their collective actions."