Vladimir Putin has appeared in public for the first time after 10 days of absence, quelling intense speculation about his health.
The Russian president was meeting Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev in St Petersburg. He was last seen in public on March 5.
Commenting on the rumors about his health, Vladimir Putin said: “Things would be boring without gossip,” RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Earlier, Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s navy on to a state of full combat readiness in the Arctic.
Russia says the navy drills involve 56 warships, planes and 38,000 personnel.
According to a tweet from the meeting in St Petersburg, Almazbek Atambayev said that Vladimir Putin “just took me for a little drive – he was at the wheel – nearby here, and I can confirm that he’s in excellent form”.
The Russian TV news channel Rossiya 24 also showed some brief footage of Vladimir Putin at the meeting, without sound.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov – quoted in a Russian journalist’s tweet – said St Petersburg was chosen as a convenient venue for Almazbek Atambayev, whose daughter is studying there.
Dmitry Peskov was also quoted as saying the “little drive” mentioned by the Kyrgyz leader lasted about 20 minutes, and Vladimir Putin “showed what a beautiful place Strelnya is”.
Vladimir Putin and Almazbek Atambayev were meeting at a tsarist palace in Strelnya, outside St Petersburg.
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Former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler has decided to cancel two concerts in Russia in protest over what he called the country’s “crackdown” on human rights groups.
Mark Knopfler pulled out of Moscow and St Petersburg concerts in June after Russian authorities searched the offices of organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Critics say the raids are an attempt to crush government dissent.
“I hope the current climate will change soon,” the singer wrote on his website.
Mark Knopfler pulled out of Moscow and St Petersburg concerts in June after Russian authorities searched the offices of organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International
Mark Knopfler’s statement said: “Given the crackdown by Russian authorities… I have regretfully decided to cancel my upcoming concerts in Moscow and St Petersburg.
“I have always loved playing in Russia and have great affection for the country and the people.”
His decision was backed by opponents of President Vladimir Putin, whose United Russia Party passed a bill in November requiring all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaging in political activity and receiving overseas funding to register as “foreign agents”.
Anti-government blogger Anton Nosik wrote: “I don’t just understand Knopfler’s decision. I respect it.”
More than 100 NGOs are said to have been searched in recent weeks.
Last month, human rights watchdog Agora said it had been swamped with calls from NGOs complaining about visits by officials from the prosecutor-general’s office, the justice ministry and tax officials.
Russian authorities claim the searches are routine but Pavel Chikov, a member of the Russian presidential Human Rights Council, said up to 2,000 organizations had been targeted with inspections and searches last month, in connection with the NGO law.
“It goes full circle across the whole spectrum – they’re trying to find as many violations as possible,” Pavel Chikov added.