Putin's supporters celebrate his birthday
Admirers of Vladimir Putin outdid themselves to show their admiration for Russia's powerful prime minister as he celebrated his 59th birthday as the country's newly minted presidential candidate.
Supporters from pro-Kremlin youth groups were singing his praises on Red Square and organising events that included a tasting of the leader's favourite dishes.
Putin's young female fans dubbed "Putin's Army" said they even planned to rank which of Putin's body parts were the most sexy.
"We think he is a swell man," student Olga Komleva, one of the event's organisers, told AFP.
"We have no doubts that he will become president."
Since Putin has announced his plan to seek a third term in March polls, he has appeared in particularly good spirits.
Speaking Thursday to foreign investors in his first major public speech since the September 24 announcement, Putin accepted early birthday wishes from attendees.
"I don't abuse (alcohol) so everything will be fine," the prime minister quipped at one point.
To mark the strongman's birthday last year, lingerie-clad students from Moscow's top university posed in an erotic calendar proclaiming their love for Putin.
But Putin's critics used the occasion to criticise the man whose rule they said was a ticking time bomb for the country and could bring about potentially devastating consequences if he did not launch genuine reforms.
Putin has been accused of stifling freedoms since he came to power in 1999. He shocked many when last month he announced a carefully choreographed job swap with incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev.
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.
"September 24, 2011 could be easily considered the final day of politics in Russia," opposition journalist Mikhail Fishman wrote in the Vedomosti business daily, referring to the date of Putin's comeback announcement.
In a poll by the independent Levada Center to be released later 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 were getting tired of waiting for positive change from the "future president," Levada Center spokesman Denis Volkov told AFP.
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 recently commented on Putin's youthful looks, with some suggesting he might have treated himself to a facelift or botox injections.
His spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier this week declined to speculate on the issue. "Honestly, I don't know how he looks after his appearance," he said, adding he was not an expert on facelifts.
"Since I see him virtually every day at work I can't gauge how his looks are developing."
© 2011 AFP