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Friday, November 2, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.

Putin's health causes great speculation

By JIM HEINTZ
The Associated Press

MOSCOW — What Russian President Vladimir Putin?

The leader whose image of physical vigor is key to his success has canceled several foreign trips in recent weeks, postponed his annual live televised question-and-answer session with average Russians and has rarely left his suburban residence outside Moscow.

A respected Russian newspaper claimed Thursday that a publicity stunt during which Putin tried to lead cranes on their migratory paths in a motorized hang-glider aggravated an old injury.

Putin's office denies it was the flight with cranes, insists it is just a pulled muscle and says that athletes often get banged up. Besides, it says, Putin is avoiding the Kremlin office so he doesn't tie up Moscow traffic with his motorcade, something that hasn't seemed to trouble him during his previous 12 years in power.

So what's really wrong?

Combine the old Russian custom of keeping a leader's health problems secret with a massive public-relations apparatus that micromanages information about Putin to the nth degree and what do you get? Lots of speculation.

After celebrating his 60th birthday in early October, Putin has rarely left his official residence, sparking claims that illness or injury hobbled him.

The Vedomosti daily on Thursday cited unidentified Kremlin-connected sources as saying Putin's September flight with the cranes had aggravated an old injury.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a state news agency the leader had pulled a muscle during a workout, but it was not connected to the highly publicized flight.

"Indeed, he pulled a muscle," Peskov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying. "Actually, we have never tried to conceal it because any athlete has lots of injuries, which, however, do not mean any restrictions of his activities."

Putin's health is no casual matter. 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 can act without his consent, leaving him at the center of a system that must balance disparate demands.

By writing off the injury as a sport-related trauma, Peskov apparently aimed to reinforce Putin's image of vigor and daring, a persona he has assiduously cultivated since coming to power in 2000.

State television has shown him swimming in a Siberian river, petting a tranquilized polar bear in the Arctic and piloting a fighter jet, skiing and practicing judo.

The hang-glider flight with the cranes, which took place just before a summit in Vladivostok, was one of Putin's trademark adventurous media events. Yet on the first day of the summit, Putin seemed to be in discomfort as he greeted leaders and avoided standing.

Putin has also put off several expected trips abroad, including to India, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Bulgaria. The Interfax news agency cited Peskov as saying there was no single reason behind those changes.

Despite the canceled trips, Putin is shown on state television almost daily, mostly sitting at meetings with officials, scholars and public-school teachers.

A Moscow-based political analyst said the health problems of Russian leaders have often led to political crises.

"First of all, it slows everything down. Even the most immediate problems or solutions cannot be taken and they have to be delayed," said Viktor Kremenyuk of the U.S.-Canada Institute. "There is no mechanism to replace the president in the absence of the president. This simply means a standstill — everything stops."

Material from The New York Times is included in this report.

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