INTERNATIONAL

Putin put off by hero worship

MOSCOW OCT. 5. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who turns 50 on Monday, has chosen to flee Moscow ahead of his birthday to escape a rising wave of popular adoration. The Russian leader has planned his work schedule in such a way as to leave the capital two days before his birthday.

On Saturday he left for St. Petersburg, for talks with the visiting President of Finland; on Sunday he goes to Ukraine to discuss setting up an international gas consortium, and on Monday he will be in Moldova for a summit meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). So intense was his desire to escape felicitations that he even left behind his wife and two teenage daughters, as protocol of the Moldova summit does not provide for the presence of the CIS leaders' spouses. Mr. Putin, who shuns any demonstration of public love during his frequent trips across the country, may have denied a chance to fawning Kremlin bureaucrats to pour tributes on their President on his birthday, but he has failed to dampen the spreading Putinmania in Russia. The national jewellery association has prepared a birthday present to the President — a replica of the famous fur-tipped cold-and-precious-stone headgear of the medieval Russian prince Monomakh, famous for his efforts to unite numerous Russian principalities in a single state.

An all-girl band has recorded a pop song idolising Mr. Putin as their dream guy. "I want a man like Putin, who doesn't drink. A man like Putin, who won' t hurt me. A man like Putin, who won't shame me,'' the song goes. Mr. Putin's popularity, which remains high despite his commitment to painful market reforms, has hit a new high ahead of his 50th birthday. Many attribute it to a stark contrast the modest, sporty, non-drinking former KGB colonel makes to his predecessor, the ailing, boasting and perpetually drunk Yeltsin. The President's popularity occasionally takes a strange twist. In a new comic opera, Monica in the Kremlin, Mr. Putin's alter-ego by the name of Krutin (from the Russian word `tough') is the target of seduction by an American agent.

Ms. Monica Levinson is infiltrated in the Kremlin as a personal assistant to the President to ensnare him in a sex scandal.

The conspiracy fails when Monica falls in love with the President's bodyguard and in the end turns out to be a Russian double agent who has tricked the Americans. Though the Kremlin frowns on such manifestations of Mr. Putin's popularity, it has done nothing to discourage them, apparently keeping in mind presidential elections in two years' time, in which Mr. Putin will run for a second and final four-year term.

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