Is Russian President Vladimir Putin feeling under the weather?
Rumors are swirling in the Kremlin and abroad regarding the state of Putin’s health; he has been notably absent in recent weeks. On Thursday, the president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov brushed aside the speculation, asserting that Putin is suffering from a sports-related injury that is not affecting his work.
Peskov explained that Putin still holds daily meetings and denied persistent reports that he is suffering from back problems that might require surgery. He said it was only a “muscle strain,” according to the Moscow Times.
“Every athlete has many injuries, especially those who play sport actively and on a daily basis, like Putin. He has trained for a long time, practically semi-professionally,” added Peskov.
But given the secrecy that so often surrounds the health problems of autocratic leaders, some Russians are speculating that the situation is more dire than the Kremlin is willing to let on.
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Last week, Putin postponed a summit with the leaders of former Soviet states, according to the BBC; he also put off visits to Turkey and Bulgaria. Onlookers in Moscow note that he has not been traveling from his private residence to the Kremlin as often as he normally does. (Peskov attributed this to Putin’s desire to avoid worsening traffic in the capital city.)
Even as far back as early September, Putin was seen limping at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok. This was just after the president performed one of his trademark daredevil publicity stunts: On Sept. 5, he mounted a purple hang glider to lead a gaggle of endangered Siberian geese southward, hoping to guide the birds along the first part of their winter journey.
The high-altitude goose flight isn’t the only dangerous stunt Putin has attempted over the years; he has a habit of staging photo-ops that border on ridiculous.
The president has been caught shirtless on a horse and shirtless wielding a fishing pole. He has shot a whale using a crossbow and calmed a tiger using a tranquilizer dart. He has piloted planes and motorcycles while cameras rolled; he once spun out driving an F1 race car. Last year, he staged a fake discovery wherein he stumbled upon ancient Greek treasures while scuba diving.
Could it be that these daredevil feats are catching up with the 60-year-old? Or is it simply the stress of presiding over an electorate whose dissenters are getting increasingly vocal?
Putin, who was first elected to the Russian presidency in 2000 and reached his limit of two consecutive terms, continued to wield power after his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, nominated him as prime minister in 2008. He was then reelected to his presidential post, amid controversy and allegations of vote-rigging, and resumed his office on May 7 of this year.
His resumption of presidential duties sparked widespread public protests.
The economy is partly to blame. Fluctuating prices are threatening Russia's oil and gas exports, an important source of income. And since Europe is Russia's biggest market, the currency woes that have crippled the euro zone are spilling into Putin's territory.
But human rights have also become a major issue in recent months. Under Putin, security officials have been cracking down on public dissent with increasing vehemence. Opposition activists like the well-known Alexei Navalny have been put under criminal investigation, and others -- including Konstantin Lebedev, Leonid Razvozzhaev and Sergei Udaltsov -- have been detained under questionable pretenses.
Also this year, the all-female punk band Pussy Riot, which openly criticizes Putin, made international headlines when three members were detained for a disruptive performance in a Moscow cathedral. Two have been sentenced to serve two years in a notoriously brutal penal colony.
For activists like these, rumors about Putin’s ill health might be cause for celebration rather than concern.
But the Kremlin is determined to keep a lid on those speculations. “This does not correspond to reality," said Peskov, according to Reuters.