Russian President Vladimir Putin ended a mysterious 11-day disappearance by materializing for a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart in St. Petersburg on March 16, Kremlin pool journalists at the meeting reported on Twitter just before 2 p.m. local time.
Kyrgyzstan’s aggressively pro-Putin president, Almazbek Atambayev, confirmed his counterpart was in good health, Russian state media reported. For his part, Putin dismissed reports on his health, saying “[life] would be boring without gossip.”
Putin had last been seen in public on March 5. There was no immediate explanation for his long absence.
The president rarely drops out of sight. So with his disappearance coming at a time of heightened anxieties in the West about Russia’s course, and rising militant nationalism at home, Russian and international media nervously speculated over his whereabouts. Pundits postulated that the president had died, was recovering from a botched Botox job, had been toppled in a place coup, or was on a secret mission to oversee the birth of a lovechild in Switzerland.
Even some of Russia’s urban liberals – no Putin lovers – became concerned that if the president had exited, who or what would come next. Had Putin been deposed in a coup by hardliners even more hardline than himself?
Putin’s spokesman tried in vain all last week to bat away the speculation, which was fueled by revelations that recent footage of presidential meetings had been pre-recorded.
In the hours before Putin appeared, as the suspense grew in St. Petersburg, some noted that Kyrgyz journalists had not been invited on the trip with Atambayev.
A local journalist who often accompanies Atambayev on trips abroad told EurasiaNet.org the president’s office said this trip was “a working trip not an official visit.” Interfax’s Kyrgyzstan correspondent said the local media is often invited on such trips, but not always.
“Generally the press go with Atambayev for bilateral meetings, but on this occasion they did not. That sometimes happens,” said a representative of Atambayev’s press team, in lieu of an explanation.
Initial speculation about Putin’s whereabouts began in earnest on March 11 when he cancelled a meeting with his Kazakh and Belarusian counterparts in Astana. A Kazakh government source told Reuters that the Russian president had fallen ill. That set tongues wagging as the strongman rarely admits even the most human weaknesses.
On Monday, Russian state media announced that the Astana meeting had been rescheduled for March 20, citing a Kazakh official who explained that the postponement had been due to the leaders’ “busy schedules.”
Putin’s appearance, of course, does not put to bed concerns about where he has been. Some noted that he looked a little pale in St. Petersburg. But this suggests only that he has not been lying on a beach somewhere warm, giving no additional insights into his vigor, either physical or political.
Chris Rickleton contributed reporting.