As he turns 60 on Sunday, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has every reason to celebrate.
He is as fit today as he was 12 years ago when he began his first term in office, has just reclaimed presidency and, notwithstanding the protests against him in recent months, keeps a firm grip on power.
There will be no official celebrations though. Mr. Putin has said through his press secretary that he will mark the occasion quietly with family in his home city of St. Petersburg. He clearly wants to avoid any parallels being drawn with Soviet leaders who clung to power until their death.
A judo black belt and avid mountain skier, Mr. Putin is never tired of showing off his brawn. Over the past couple of years he went scuba diving to recover ancient Greek amphorae from the Black Sea, raced in a Formula 1 car at 200 km-per-hour, tranquilised a tiger and strapped a satellite-transmitter collar on a wild polar bear. Earlier this year he put on his skates to lead an amateur hockey team to victory against “Legends of Russia”, and last month took to the skies to guide a flock of endangered Siberian white cranes on their migration to Asia.
Mr. Putin appears to have reversed the aging process, looking younger today than he did 10 years ago. He is rumoured to have gone under the knife of a plastic surgeon last year to remove lines, creases and wrinkles on his face. When Mr. Putin visits India next month for an annual Indo-Russian summit Indians will have a chance to compare for themselves the youthful figure he cuts today with how he looked on his last visit two years ago.
Even as he flaunts himself, Putin’s private life, never too open for public viewing, has become a closely guarded state secret in recent years. Russian media know better than to touch the sensitive subject.
Four years ago a Moscow tabloid that splashed the news of Mr. Putin divorcing his wife Lyudmila to marry Olympic gymnast champion Alina Kabayeva promptly shut down. The lives of their two daughters, Maria (27), and Yekaterina (26), are also a taboo subject. There are no photos of them, nobody knows where they live or what they do.
Apart from shielding Mr. Putin from what he once called the media’s “snot-ridden noses”, the veil of secrecy helps to impart the image of a god-like Russian Tsar who rules from his Kremlin throne and is out of bounds to his subjects — though not in the eyes of internet-savvy post-Soviet generations who want to transform Mr. Putin’s authoritarian political system into genuine democracy.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in recent months to protest Mr. Putin’s return to presidency.
But what the new protest movement lacks are leaders and a structure; it has failed to spread to the regions where Mr. Putin still enjoys strong support. Unless living standards fall in coming months and years, there is little chance the opposition can challenge Mr. Putin’s hold on power. He may stay at the helm long enough to mark his 70th birthday in the Kremlin.
Keywords: Vladimir Putin