Where in the world is Putin? Online satirists run wild
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Despite official insistence of business as usual at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not been seen in public since March 5, is the target of social media satirists wondering where he might be.
Fantastical theories circulating online suggest that the 62-year-old Kremlin leader has died, been deposed, or travelled to Switzerland to watch his girlfriend give birth.
The rumours were fueled by the government's March 11 release of photos of a meeting between Putin and a regional governor that turned out to be taken the previous week.
Ukrainian children even produced a cartoon showing Putin abducted from the Kremlin by aliens.
The hashtag #putinumer (putin died) began trending on Twitter, and a website, putinumer.com, offered readers advice on how to gauge whether the rumours were true.
“Look out the window,” it advised. “Are people rejoicing, dancing, letting off fireworks? No? That means he hasn’t died yet.”
This joker discovered a striking resemblance between Putin and the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck
Putin spotted in disguise at London art gallery, with pregnant partner pic.twitter.com/mGm12rdQlb— Patrick Jackson (@patrickgjackson) March 14, 2015
Putin is normally ubiquitous in state media, but his silence over the last nine days has fed speculation of a threat to his grip on power. While hard facts are scarce, there has been talk of a split between rival Kremlin camps since the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov near Red Square on February 27.
A Ukrainian website carried a cartoon of Putin lying alongside Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in his Red Square mausoleum, and mocked-up pictures of Putin on his deathbed or lying in an open coffin.
Kremlin not amused
While Putin is a target of satire, he remains by far Russia’s most popular politician and has enjoyed a surge in patriotic support since annexing Crimea from Ukraine last year.
The head of pro-Kremlin polling firm VTSIOM said on Friday that his approval rating had hit an all-time high of 88 percent.
Asked by Reuters to confirm that the president was in good health, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Yes. We’ve already said this a hundred times. This isn’t funny any more.”
RIA news agency separately quoted Peskov as denying that Putin had become a father again a response to a flurry of speculation that former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva had given birth in Switzerland. The Kremlin has regularly denied speculation of a romantic relationship between Kabayeva and Putin, who formally divorced his wife Lyudmila in 2014.
What an interesting job Putin's spokesman Peskov has: no, the president isn't dead; no, he didn't father a secret love-child.— Joshua Yaffa (@yaffaesque) March 13, 2015
In a country where the president dominates state media, demonstrations are tightly controlled and Kremlin opponents risk arrest, fines, prosecution or, in Nemtsov’s case, death, the Internet has become the most effective outlet for dissent.
In a surreal YouTube video which had been viewed more than 93,000 times by Friday evening, two men in camouflage uniforms are shown walking through a rubble-strewn landscape past Putin’s gravestone, carrying a TV screen showing wild Cossack dancing.
“Unbelievable things happen in the world,” they sing. “You would think the people would mourn/But the earthlings celebrate/All the continents conduct parades/America is happy, Europe is happy.”
Theories sprang up to explain why the president this week postponed a meeting with the leader of Kazakhstan one suggested he was meeting Muammar Gaddafi and Hugo Chavez, the deceased Libyan and Venezuelan leaders.
A spokesman for President Barack Obama was asked aboard Air Force One whether the US government had any information on Putin’s whereabouts or whether Obama had been briefed.
“I have enough trouble keeping track of the whereabouts of one world leader,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters. “I would refer you to the Russians for questions on theirs. I’m sure they’ll be very responsive.”
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)