Is Putin gravely ill? Questions mount

Ellen Barry / New York Times News Service

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary spent much of Thursday denying a new round of rumors about Putin’s health, explaining that he has been working from home lately rather than commuting to the Kremlin to avoid causing traffic congestion.

Vedomosti, a daily newspaper, reported Thursday that Putin has postponed a series of foreign trips — to Turkey, Bulgaria, India and Turkmenistan — until late November at the earliest, meaning that his December travel schedule will be packed.

Last week, Reuters noted the postponed trips, and quoted unidentified government officials who said Putin was suffering from back problems that might require surgery. On Wednesday came the news that Putin was postponing his trademark marathon televised question-and-answer session, an event that usually takes place in December, until the spring or summer.

Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the president pulled a muscle in his back while exercising in early September, and suffered from a “painful reaction for a couple of days” during the Asia-Pacific economic summit meeting in the eastern city of Vladivostok. He said the president was not suffering from any continuing ill effects from what he said was “not an injury, it’s just a mismovement.”

“He is not getting treatment, he is doing sports, every day, like always,” Peskov said in an interview. “He’s got no injury. There is nothing to heal.”

He said the timing of the foreign trips had never been finalized or announced by the Kremlin, so it was not correct to say they had been delayed. Clearly exasperated by the battery of questions, Peskov tried to maintain his good humor, saying the rumors were “a good thing, because it means that we don’t have serious problems.”

“Journalists are trying to make a picture — a nonexistent picture — and they are asking questions, and of course we are a little bit tired of answering this thing,” he said. “Really. I see him when he is not under television cameras, and he is 100 percent normal.”

Putin’s health is, of course, no casual matter. Now 60, he is following a term as prime minister with his third term as president in a political system that hinges on his personality. While there are powerful interest groups within the Russian government, none of them can act without his consent, leaving him at the center of a system that must balance disparate demands.

State-controlled television made much of Putin’s good health and vigorous lifestyle last month, when he reached Russia’s retirement age. A documentary shown on his birthday focused largely on his daily workout, and showed him tucking into healthy foods like oatmeal and an energy drink containing beets and horseradish.

It is undeniable that he leaves his residence less frequently these days, and political observers have begun to scrutinize his body language. On Thursday, Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy, an influential radio station, described watching Putin grip the lectern while standing at a long awards ceremony in early September, then leave midceremony, allowing Sergei Ivanov, the head of the presidential administration, to finish.

“This does not happen; at least it has not happened,” Venediktov said on a morning talk show. “After that I understood that there were in fact problems and the problems were serious.”

Venediktov also said Putin’s aides “groveled at his feet” to entreat him not to take part in a September stunt, in which he flew a motorized hang glider to guide endangered cranes on their first migratory flight, lest he further injure his back. Thursday’s newspaper report said his injury flared up after the flight. Peskov rejected that idea in a morning radio appearance, saying “nothing was aggravated after the flight with the cranes.”

The chatter is reminiscent of the scrutiny that followed Soviet leaders, whose posture and skin tone were the subject of chatter among journalists, diplomats and analysts who pored over photographs in Western capitals. President Boris Yeltsin regularly took part in rallies during his 1996 presidential campaign despite heart troubles so serious that, around four months later, he underwent a seven-hour operation to circumvent five clogged arteries.

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