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Battling time and protests, Putin turns 60

04 october 2012, 16:00
0
©RIA Novosti
©RIA Novosti
Russian President Vladimir Putin hits retirement age on Sunday but he appears determined to prove that 60 is the new 40, AFP reports.

In power since 1999 first as prime minister, then president, then prime minister and now president again, Putin has over the past decade sidelined opponents and in May triumphantly returned to the Kremlin for a historic third term.

As he turns 60, he may be going into the most important battle of his lifetime: the one against time itself.

Faced with the growing opposition movement against his rule, the Russian strongman has refused to step down and never ruled out running for another six-year Kremlin term in 2018.

In what critics say is a bid to prove he's a man in his prime, Putin has over the past few years staged a series of age-defying stunts.

He dived to the bottom of Lake Baikal aboard a submarine, flew a fighter jet, drove a Formula One car, rode a bobsled, paraded a well-toned chest on a holiday in Siberia and most recently took to the controls of a hang-glider to fly with cranes in Siberia.

"Looking at his life, psychologically, he feels young -- he feels 40 and not 60," said blogger and editor of Russky Zhurnal website Alexander Morozov.

While maintaining such a good physique is no small feat by any standards, it is especially impressive in Russia where tobacco and alcohol abuse runs deep and men age quickly.

The general retirement age for men in Russia is 60, while average life expectancy for males stood at 62.8 years in 2009, the latest year for which the data is available at the state statistics service.

--- 'He'll work for a long time' --

Putin's supporters have repeatedly expressed admiration for the leader's physical fitness, encouraging him to stay in power for as long as his health allows him.

"Putin will be able to work for a very long time," said Sergei Markov, a former lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party and a member of the national health commission at the Kremlin's Public Chamber, referring to his stamina and above average physical abilities.

"I once participated in a meeting with him that went on for four hours.

He never once took a bathroom break. I was stunned. I did not know what to think."

In a sign that Putin and his aging team have no plans to leave the Kremlin any time soon, the president in September submitted a bill to parliament that would extend the retirement age for senior government officials to 70 from 65 now.

In a meeting with Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's former prime minister and Putin's old friend, in 2010, the Russian strongman even joked that the two would stay in power until 120.

But Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president did not plan any high-profile festivities because of a busy work week.

"He will celebrate his birthday among close friends and family," Peskov told AFP.

Yet there will be no shortage of admirers who will line up to congratulate Putin and shower him with lavish gifts.

The governor of Saint Petersburg will help throw a concert in Putin's honour in the president's hometown which will also feature an exhibition of paintings dedicated to Putin, while pro-Kremlin activists will recite poetry in central Moscow on Sunday.

But opposition activists will jump at the opportunity to remind Putin he's well over the hill.

"I wish for Vladimir Vladimirovich to use his constitutional right to retire and write and publish an interesting memoir by the time he's 65," acclaimed detective novelist and opposition activist Boris Akunin told AFP.

--- 'Why did he come back?' ---

Critics say it is sad to see a man once praised for breathing a degree of self-confidence into post-Soviet Russia increasingly lose touch with reality.

"I wish his mental health would catch up with his physical health," said satirist and opposition commentator Viktor Shenderovich.

During unprecedented protests against Putin this past winter, many mocked Putin's youthful looks with hand-made slogans emblazoned with the word "Botox", with that word also becoming a hashtag for the Russian president on Twitter.

In response to the rallies the Kremlin pushed through tough legislation in a bid to cauterize dissent.

Some observers say the ultimate loser in Putin's fight against time may be the whole of Russia.

Even some of his staunchest supporters admit that Putin's third term lacks a clear agenda and appears aimed at retaining the status quo amid worsening infighting within the elites.

"There are a lot of questions he left unanswered," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who was until recently an active member of the ruling United Russia party.

"People need an explanation -- why did he come back for a third term? Where's big politics, where are great goals?"

Former oil tycoon turned Russia's most prominent prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky said the march of time was unstoppable.

"His 'big political cycle' is coming to an end. In a modern world it is 15 years," Khodorkovsky wrote in his newly published book, "Prison and Freedom."

"It will all end abruptly. The ossified system will miss some crisis situation which will blow up the cauldron."

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