Mystery in Russia
Kremlin says Putin is fine, but he’s out of public view
By Neil MacFarquhar THE NEW YORK TIMES
MOSCOW — Where’s Putin?
It was the question preoccupying Moscow and much of Russia yesterday, as speculation mounted about why President Vladimir Putin had not been seen in public since last week.
He canceled a trip to Kazakhstan; postponed a treaty-signing with representatives of the disputed Caucasus region of South Ossetia who reportedly were told not to bother to come to Moscow; and, unusually, was absent from a meeting of top officials of the FSB, Russia’s domestic-intelligence service.
The last confirmed public sighting was at a meeting with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy on March 5 — although the Kremlin would have citizens think otherwise. Given that the Kremlin borrows all manner of items from the Soviet playbook these days, there appeared to be an attempt to doctor the president’s timetable to show that all was well.
The daily newspaper RBC dug into Putin’s schedule as reported on the usually reliable presidential website, Kremlin.ru. The newspaper reported that a meeting with the governor of the northwestern region of Karelia, depicted as taking place on Wednesday, actually occurred on March 4, when a local website there wrote about it. A meeting with a group of women shown as having occurred on Sunday actually happened on March 6, RBC said.
Yesterday, the Kremlin released video and posted a still picture of Putin meeting with the president of Russia’s Supreme Court, but because the video was not live, questions lingered. The simplest explanation appeared to come from an unidentified government source in Kazakhstan, who apparently did not get the memo and told Reuters that “it looks like he has fallen ill.”
Given that half of Moscow seems to be suffering from a particularly debilitating strain of flu that knocks people on their backs for days, that seemed the most likely explanation. But there also appeared to be a certain reluctance to concede that Russia’s leader, who cultivates a macho image of being in good health at age 62, might have been felled like a mere mortal. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told any media outlet that called (and most did) that his boss was in fine fettle, holding meetings and tending to his duties. “Perfectly healthy,” Peskov told a news agency. Now, all eyes are on Monday, when Putin is scheduled to meet with the president of Kyrgyzstan in St. Petersburg.