Berlusconi, Schroeder expected for Putin b'day bash
Russia's leader Vladimir Putin planned to mark his 59th birthday Friday in the company of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as supporters sang his praises.
His critics used the occasion to attack the man whose rule they said was a ticking time bomb for the country that could bring about potentially devastating consequences if Putin did not launch genuine reforms.
His spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia's newly-minted presidential candidate would after a regular working day get together with his close friends including Italy's scandal-tainted Berlusconi and Schroeder to celebrate the occasion.
"They will gather tonight at one of his residences," Peskov told AFP, declining further details.
Putin's fans including the pro-Kremlin youth groups outdid themselves to show their admiration for the powerful prime minister, singing his praises on Red Square and organising events that included a tasting of the leader's favourite dishes, among them fish soup.
A group of his young female supporters dubbed Putin's Army posted a video of themselves wearing nothing but white shirts making a birthday cake for Putin and suggestively squirting whipped cream into each others' mouths.
The video posted on YouTube has a soundtrack of Putin's speeches, set to a heavy electronic beat.
"We think he is a swell man," student and Putin fan Olga Komleva told AFP. "We have no doubts that he will become president."
Since Putin announced his plan to seek a virtually assured third term in March polls instead of his protege, current President Dmitry Medvedev, whom he promised the premiership, he has appeared in particularly good spirits.
Speaking Thursday to foreign investors in his first major public speech since the September 24 announcement, he accepted early birthday wishes from attendees.
"I don't drink too much so everything will be fine," the prime minister quipped at one point.
Putin has been accused of stifling freedoms since he came to power in 1999 and shocked many with his job swap announced with Medvedev last month.
Even though his support ratings have recently fallen, he remains Russia's most popular politician and is almost certain to win an election some critics see as little more than a coronation.
But in a poll by the independent Levada Center released Friday, 24 percent of respondents called the Putin-Medvedev job swap "a stitch-up between the two politicians behind the people's back."
More than half of 1,600 respondents polled after Putin's historic announcement said they agreed with a statement that Russians were getting tired of waiting for positive change from the "future president," pollster spokesman Denis Volkov told AFP.
Some Russian bloggers "congratulated" Putin by flooding Twitter with sarcastic rhyming verses harking back to the Soviet era and thanking him for everything from the absence of genuine elections to corruption.
The phrase "Thank you Putin for this" at one point became the second-most popular Tweet worldwide.
Putin's birthday was also the fifth anniversary of anti-Kremlin journalist Anna Politkovskaya's murder. Putin's spokesman Peskov has repeatedly slammed attempts to link the prime minister to the slain reporter.
Opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which employed Politkovskaya, compared Putin's Russia to North Korea on Friday.
"Russia and Putin will live a long and happy life together and -- as they say -- will die on the same day," it said.
Putin over the past few years has lost no opportunity to stress that he is in good physical health.
He has posed in the Russian wilderness displaying his muscled torso, dived to the bottom of the world's deepest lake and recently disrobed for a medical checkup in front of television cameras.
Observers have commented on Putin's youthful looks, with some suggesting he might have treated himself to a facelift or botox injections.
His spokesman this week declined to speculate on the issue. "Honestly, I don't know how he looks after his appearance," Peskov said.
© 2011 AFP