Putin Absence, Nemtsov Killing Spark Nervous Rumors in Russia

Putin Absence, Nemtsov Killing Spark Nervous Rumors in Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atanbayev in the Konstantin Palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia, March 16, 2015 (AP photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service).

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atanbayev in St. Petersburg today, his first public appearance since March 5, when he held a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Moscow. Between then and now, Putin canceled several important meetings, including one intended to mend relations with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and another with representatives of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia. Putin offered no explanation for his lengthiest absence since 2012, saying only, “It would be dull without gossip.” Atanbayev also made a point of telling the media that Putin had personally driven him around the grounds of the Konstantin Palace, dismissing concerns about the Russian president’s health.

Rumors about Putin swirled in Russia over the past week. Many of these were relatively trivial—that he had the flu, that he was getting Botox injections, or that Alina Kabayeva, the Olympic medalist and former State Duma representative widely believed to be his mistress, had given birth to his baby. But some analysts believed a coup might be taking place in the Kremlin. While Putin spokespeople reassured the public that the president was well, and tried to back that up with purportedly recent still photos, no one was able to prove it until today. Putin’s return is now fueling speculation that he was attempting to frighten the public by floating the possibility of a leadership vacuum.

Putin appears to have emerged healthy and firmly in control of Russia, but his surreal absence is set against a backdrop of fresh political intrigue in Moscow. On Feb. 27, liberal opposition activist and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge opposite the Kremlin. Since then, five Chechen men have been arrested and two have been charged over the killing.

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