- Vladimir Putin reappeared today at a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in St. Petersburg.
- The Russian president previously had not been seen in public since March 5, which had triggered rumors and speculation about why he was "missing."
- Though Putin now appears to be fine, the commotion in Russia over where he was speaks to underlying fear and uncertainty about what happens after Putin. No one knows who would assume power if he died, got sick, or otherwise left office. And that says something about the instability and uncertainty of the Russian state under Putin.
Putin met publicly with Almazbek Atambayev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, in St. Petersburg today. Although the nominal purpose of their meeting was to discuss Kyrgzstan's admission into the Eurasian Economic Union, the world's eyes were on the event to see if Putin would show up for the promised public appearance.
He did. Reuters reports that Putin, looking "relaxed but pale," told reporters that "it would be boring without gossip" — an apparent reference to the wild speculation about the cause of his 10-day absence from public life. Putin offered no further explanation for his absence.
Putin hadn't been seen in public since March 5, but rumors that he had disappeared began in earnest March 11, after he canceled a planned visit to Kazakhstan.
An anonymous Kazakh government official told Reuters, "It looks like he has fallen ill."
Reuters later reported that Putin had also rescheduled a meeting with officials from Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, which was set to take place on March 11 but has now been postponed to March 18.
Reuters triggered much of the speculation with its report on Wednesday that Putin had canceled his meetings in Kazakhstan because he was ill. Since then, rumors had been swirling about where Putin could be — some joking, but some more serious.
Some in Russia speculated that Putin could be ill with the flu or a stroke, away attending the birth of a "love child" with his rumored partner Alina Kabayeva, or lying low to deal with political intrigue — perhaps infighting between the FSB security services and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, or even a palace coup.
Social media jokers used the hashtag #ПутинУмер ("Putin is dead") to speculate that he could have died and joke that he will be buried topless — a reference to his fondness for posing for bare-chested photos — or that he couldn't possibly die because "it's not profitable."
Speculation reached an even higher pitch Friday and Saturday. There were rumors on social media that the Kremlin was planning a major announcement, and Russian website Vlasti reported that journalists had been warned not to leave Moscow over the weekend because the Kremlin expected to hold a press conference. But the report was poorly sourced and did not seem credible in light of Friday's announcement that Putin would meet today with the leader of Kyrgyzstan.
The Kremlin's denials
On March 12, Putin's spokesperson Dmitri Peskov denied that the president was ill, insisting: "He has meetings all the time. He has meetings today, tomorrow. I don't know which ones we will make public."
On March 13, Peskov issued a more specific denial, this time to deny the tabloid rumor that Putin had snuck away to be with a newborn "love child."
"The information on a baby born to Vladimir Putin is false," Peskov said, according to state news agency ITAR-TASS. "I am going to ask people who have money to organize a contest on the best media rumor."
On Friday, the Kremlin announced that Putin will have a meeting on Monday with Almazbek Atambaev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, in St. Petersburg.
The odd photos and videos
The Kremlin has released photos and footage of meetings that supposedly took place during Putin's "absence." However, that did not put a stop to the rumors. Many suggested that the dates of the photos and footage were false — that they might have been created earlier and then released to create the illusion that Putin was still working.
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