MOSCOW (AP) — Speculation is swirling in Russia about the state of Vladimir Putin's health, as an unusual spell outside the public eye fuels the rumor mill. On Thursday, the Russian president's spokesman sought to quash such talk, saying in an interview that Putin's health is "really perfect."
Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press that Putin has a busy agenda in the coming days, including some international meetings. He said that next week the president is set to make a trip to Kazakhstan, which had been planned for this week but abruptly postponed.
The 62-year old Russian leader was last seen in public on March 5, when he hosted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi before falling out of sight for a week — a highly unusual absence. The Kremlin insisted that the president had a few other official meetings in the following days, but some Russian media contested that and claimed they had actually taken place earlier.
Peskov rejected the allegations, and insisted that the Russian leader was keeping his usual busy schedule.
"There is absolutely no reason for any doubts about the state of his health," Peskov told the AP. "His health is really perfect, everything is OK with him, and he's working in accordance with his traditionally overloaded working schedule."
Putin's conspicuous disappearance from the public eye comes at a turbulent moment in Russia's domestic politics. Last week, Russia's security agencies arrested five men suspected of involvement in the Feb. 27 killing of top opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin.
The suspected triggerman was a former senior officer in Chechnya's police force, and the region's Moscow-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov defiantly described the suspect as a brave soldier and deeply religious man who wouldn't do any harm to Russia. A day after the arrests were announced, Putin awarded Kadyrov with one of Russia's highest medals, a move widely seen as an attempt to assuage the feisty Chechen strongman.
Some observers say the arrests could signal a fierce battle for power between Kadyrov, who has run Chechnya as his personal fiefdom relying on generous Kremlin subsidies, and some top figures in Russian law-enforcement agencies who have long viewed the Chechen leader with resentment.
Many Russian opposition activists have remained skeptical about the official probe and blamed the government for Nemtsov's death.
Commenting on a statement by Nemtsov's daughter Zhanna, who told BBC that she holds Putin "politically" responsible for her father's death, Peskov said the investigation will point to the real culprits.
"We understand the emotions of his daughter, we can only renew the condolences that were expressed by President Putin after that tragic death," he said. "We do hope that in coming days all the formalities in terms of legislation will be completed and prosecutors will sound out their versions of the murder, those who are standing behind and so on and so forth."
European Union lawmakers on Thursday adopted a resolution demanding an international investigation into the killing of Nemstov, calling it the "most significant political murder in recent Russian history." The resolution said that Russia is acting "contrary to a functioning democracy" and that government propaganda is turning the nation into a "state of repression, hate speech and fear."
Peskov scoffed at the resolution, saying that Russia will conduct its own probe.
"Here is Russia and we are going to continue an investigation that is being conducted by the organs and special services and law enforcement that are envisaged by Russian legislation," he said, speaking in English.
A Kremlin announcement Wednesday that Putin would postpone an upcoming trip to Kazakhstan planned for this week set off a flurry of media speculation and online rumors, with some claiming that Putin could be seriously ill and others suggesting that he could be planning the ouster of a major government figure.
Peskov insisted that "everything is going like always."
"Actually it's very hard to explain this wave of interest toward the state of his health," he said, adding with a laugh: "We do appreciate the care, the global care."
The Kremlin's press service on Wednesday issued a photo of a meeting between Putin and the regional governor of Karelia. However, some local news agencies had reported on the meeting as early as March 5. The Russian news agency RBC cited an anonymous source in the Karelian governor's office as saying that the meeting had actually taken place March 4.
Peskov dismissed the speculation and said that Putin kept a busy schedule, although some of his meetings weren't public.
"Sometimes he's more public, sometimes he's not," Peskov said. "But it doesn't mean that he's not continuing his tradition of being a workaholic. So it's continuing traditionally, and his working schedule is quite heavy."
He said Putin is set to hold some meetings tomorrow, and "there will be some international contacts during the next week, very important meetings with the government next week in the middle."
Putin's visit to Kazakhstan is set to take place "closer to the end of next week," Peskov added.
Laura Mills in Moscow contributed to this report.