Putin in pain - concern over Russia's backbone number one
The back pain that Russian President Vladimir Putin is apparently suffering remains a hotly debated topic in Moscow political circles following a two-month break in his travel schedule. The action-man 60-year-old, who likes to be photographed shirtless while engaging in extreme sports, is clearly having back difficulties, according to opinion columns.
Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2012
The MK tabloid demanded clarification after the Kremlin continued to insist that the president is fit. The Russian people had a right to know the truth about the country's "backbone number one," the newspaper said. Putin's official spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded with irritation to reports and photographs to the effect that Putin had to be helped into his chair by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a recent visit to Istanbul.
"I'm tired of explaining this. I simply don't feel like it any more," Peskov told the Novosti state news agency. Only newspapers critical of the Kremlin were reporting about the event, in which Erdogan asked Putin after his health while the Russian leader advised the Turkish prime minister to take exercise, the spokesman said. For weeks Peskov has been insisting that Putin, who holds a black belt in judo, frequently participates in sport to the level of a professional. He has refused to go beyond saying that Putin could be suffering from an old sports injury.
The Kremlin has also declined to comment on comments by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko that Putin had cancelled a date to play ice hockey after injuring himself during a bout of judo. In its current edition, the Russian New Times magazine publishes a photograph of the president, showing him supporting himself on a chair while grimacing in pain. The shot was taken during a summit in Vladivostok in September.
That gave rise to rumours that Putin had hurt himself during a much publicised flight with rare Siberian cranes. But since Putin was shown only seated during a Kremlin meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in November, against all precedent, it had become evident "that he is wearing a corset," according to the magazine.
Radio broadcaster Echo of Moscow notes acerbically that nobody believes the official version in Russia in any case. The mistrust of the Soviet era, when the Politburo regarded the state of health of communist party general secretary Leonid Brezhnev as a state secret, remains deep-seated. Little changed in this respect even after the collapse of communism. The frequently bizarre appearances in public of Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in the 1990s continued to be attributed to the medication he was taking, long after it was clear that he was in fact drunk.
"For as long as VVP is president, he does not only belong to himself," MK says, adding that if Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin shows signs of weakness, this is a matter for the whole country. Precisely because all the major decisions in Russia have been taken in autocratic fashion by this man over the past 13 years, any illness the president might be suffering concerns Russian society as a whole, political observers say. "Of course his health is a political factor," says Kremlin specialist Olga Kryshtanovskaya. "Putin has to change his image. He can't be the eternally fit young man who plays hockey and football, goes skiing and flies with the cranes."
Speaking on Echo of Moscow, she said Russians would prefer to have a "mature and wise leader." The Nezavisimaya Gazeta believes a shift in Putin's image from macho to "wise Russian patriarch" is already underway at the instigation of the Kremlin. The newly declared war on corruption right into the centres of power is part of this campaign, with a view to renewing the "Putin brand," the newspaper says. Kremlin watchers believe Putin could go into the 2018 presidential election presenting himself as a calm and wise leader and as an experienced referee in the battle between liberals and conservatives.