ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Looking fit and joking about all the fuss over his unexplained 10-day absence from public view, President Vladimir Putin reappeared on Monday to quell the swirling speculation about the state of his health and his hold on power.
"It would be dull without gossip," Putin said with a smile during a meeting with Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, at St. Petersburg's ornate Konstantin Palace.
Atambayev had just said that he wanted to put an end to the unpleasant gossip, describing how Putin had driven him around the palace's park and thus "not only walks, but speeds around."
Before Monday's appearance, Putin was last seen in public on March 5, when he hosted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The Kremlin insisted that he continued to hold official meetings and released photos and video of the meetings that were shown on national television, but Russian media suggested the images had actually been shot much earlier.
Putin's decision to abruptly postpone a trip to Kazakhstan planned for last week fueled speculation that he was unwell or isolated by a palace coup. A Swiss newspaper claimed that Putin had traveled to Switzerland, where it said his supposed girlfriend — former Olympic gold-winning rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva — had given birth to their baby. The Kremlin has denied all of these claims.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, acerbically mocked the speculation when speaking to reporters: "So, have you seen the president paralyzed and seized by the generals? He has just come back from Switzerland, where he attended the delivery."
Asked if Putin's condition required treatment by an osteopath, the spokesman retorted: "Yes, the osteopath was with the generals."
In September 2012, Putin was in visible discomfort during an international summit in Vladivostok and spent little time on his feet. It was only weeks later — after he had spent more time than usual at his country residence and postponed a number of foreign trips — that Peskov explained that the president had pulled a muscle in his back.
The 62-year-old Russian leader has cultivated an image of vigor and athletic strength, frequently demonstrating his skills in judo, hockey, swimming and skiing. He is loath to be seen as weak, and this may be especially true at a time of such unease in Russia.
Some observers have speculated that the Feb. 27 killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and the arrest of five ethnic Chechen suspects, including a senior police officer, signaled a fierce power struggle between Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and top Russian officials from federal law enforcement agencies who resent the feisty strongman.
Putin has described the shooting of Nemtsov on a bridge near the Kremlin as a "disgrace" and a "provocation." But some in Russia hold the president responsible for the killing, pointing to the portrayal of opposition figures, including Nemtsov, as national traitors and the atmosphere of hatred this has created.
Peskov's sarcastic comments on Monday appeared to reflect the Kremlin's dismay with the rumors and its inability to stop them. On a more serious note, Peskov said that the Kremlin has grown tired of refuting speculation about Putin's condition.
"The more we talk about it, the more intense it (the speculation) becomes," he said.