By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - As Vladimir Putin's 60th birthday approaches, a wave of biting satire is starting to hurt his macho image.
Back in the Kremlin since May, the former KGB spy faces the biggest protests of his long rule and ratings that an independent pollster says have slipped below 50 percent. His image, says a former Kremlin spin-doctor, may need rebranding.
Vote-winning antics such as horse-riding bare-chested, or shooting a tiger with a tranquiliser dart now open him to ridicule reminiscent of that directed at Boris Yeltsin, the vodka-swilling leader he replaced 12 years ago.
Putin has long cultivated a sober and vigorous image in contrast with Yeltsin. His spokesman said he was paying little attention to his birthday on October 7 because of his passion for his job.
Many analysts say he will seek another six-year term when his mandate ends in 2018. He has no obvious successor and a strong hold on business in the country of 140 million, a major oil and gas producer.
"Putin is still the guy you have to go to for approval on any major business decision," said a senior Western executive based in Moscow. "He is still the ultimate arbiter."
The satire is focused on the Internet, which has helped remove the shackles on criticism and has proved a growing influence in Russia as a forum where Putin's opponents announce their protests.
At times it portrays Putin as a buffoon, the image that haunted Yeltsin, who once picked up a baton and conducted a band after a champagne lunch in Germany, and on another occasion played the spoons on the head of the president of Kyrgyzstan.
When Putin donned white baggy overalls and goggles to fly in a light aircraft alongside endangered migrating cranes this month, doctored pictures and jokes spread across the Internet and social networking sites in minutes.
The "Flight of hope", intended to show cranes born in captivity how to follow a leader in a flock, was quickly mocked by a blogger who said "we all lost hope long ago".
A video montage on Youtube showed doctored images of Putin with a yellow beak and in flight in a Superman costume. In a nod to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable calling Putin an Alpha-dog, a cartoon showed him telling other cranes: "I am the Alpha crane."
Putin has laughed off the jokes and hit back, tongue-in-cheek, by describing his opponents as "birds who do not like to fly in a flock and prefer to nest individually".
"TSAR WITHOUT SUBSTANCE"
Such comments have only spawned more jokes.
"There were always plenty of reasons (to satirize Putin). I even feel a bit sorry for him now because he's not as confident as he was a few years ago," Sergei Yolkin, a cartoonist who has regularly poked fun at the president, said by telephone.
"He's been at a bit of a loss for the past year and you can see it in his public relations efforts."
When he announced a year ago that he planned to return to the presidency for six more years, making it likely he would rule for as long as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, a picture did the rounds of Putin's face imposed on a portrait of Brezhnev, prematurely aged and decrepit. Brezhnev's rule is associated with stagnation, a fear some Russians have of Putin's new term.
When Putin said last December he mistook the white ribbons worn by protesters for condoms, a doctored photo appeared of Putin with a condom pinned to his chest instead of a medal.
Former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky said Putin's public relations efforts were clearly now failing and described him as resembling a "tsar without any substance."
"He seriously needs rebranding," Pavlovsky said. "Russians like to joke, and the jokes about Putin have become nasty. Many people have got tired of him."
Putin's supporters still hold him up as the man who saved Russia from collapse after inheriting from Yeltsin a country that was in chaos a decade after the Soviet Union fell apart.
Putin reined in Russia's independent-minded regions including Chechnya, where he launched the second of two wars against separatist rebels, and his tough anti-Western rhetoric helped restore Russians' national pride.
"He still has support among a large part of the population, especially in the provinces," said opinion pollster Lev Gudkov.
The impact of the web-based satire is hard to gauge. The Internet World Stats website said there were almost 61.5 million Internet users in Russia in 2011, more than 44 percent of the population, but researcher eMarketer said only 10 percent of users in Russia were over 55.
Putin plays to this audience by showing he leads an active lifestyle and is physically strong. He still practices judo, a sport in which has a black belt, the top level of accomplishment, and he swims and plays ice hockey regularly.
"He doesn't pay all that much attention to his birthday. I don't think he notices it because he's an absolute workaholic," said his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
For all the satire, there are plenty of Russians who will want to celebrate Putin's birthday.
Tajik singer Tolibzhon Kurbankhanov has released a song and video called "Happy Birthday Mr President". It appears not to be a parody and is a follow-up to "VVP (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin) which begins: "Let's sit and remember together those years/ When he wasn't here, we had just fear."
A year ago, a group of young women marked Putin's 59th birthday by recording a video of themselves in little more than their blouses and underwear baking him a birthday cake.
Some of Putin's critics say the satire has not hit home.
"I think Putin has shown over the past two years that he is not really bothered by the jokes," said Alexander Yelin, lyricist of the group Rabfak which has performed at anti-Putin rallies, and writer of the song 'Our madhouse votes for Putin'.
"We don't like what's being done in the country but the illness is there and the medication isn't working."
Although support in the provinces helped Putin win almost two-thirds of the votes in the March presidential election, Gudkov's independent Levada polling group said last month that 48 percent of Russians now had a positive view of him compared to 60 percent in May.
He also faces persistent protests demanding he quit, and his response has been tough. Laws have been toughened on protests, defamation and Internet use, homes of protest organisers have been raided, one has been expelled from parliament and he and another face the threat of jail on charges they deny.
Three young women from the Pussy Riot punk band were jailed in August after belting out a profanity-laced anti-Putin protest near the altar of Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedral.
Although Putin crushed the rebellion in Chechnya and set about restoring central Kremlin control over the sprawling country, he faces renewed Islamist insurrection in the area.
He has appealed for calm and religious tolerance and warned that violence could spread and tear Russia apart, messages which resonate with many voters who still mourn the Soviet Union.
His prime minister and protege, Dmitry Medvedev, who sat in the Kremlin for four years as president while Putin became the paramount leader as premier - the constitution barred him from seeking a third straight term - is widely seen as out of favor.
Putin's allies - many of them rich businessmen, colleagues from when he worked as a city adviser in St Petersburg and fellow KGB veterans - have given no hint of transferring their support to anyone else and the opposition remains divided.
"As long as he can hold out promises through social policy, and support state-owned enterprises and increases in pensions - state populism, one might say - Putin will retain his support base," Gudkov said.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Gleb Bryanski; editing by Philippa Fletcher)