MOSCOW: Russia's President Vladimir Putin turned 60on Sunday, the official retirement age in the country he has dominated for the past 12 years,as critics snickered that his image of an energetic, young macho leader no longer corresponds with his age.
Putin flew to his native northwestern city of Saint Petersburg to spend the day with "friends and family", according to his spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
However his supporters went out of their way to wish him the best, and his birthday figured prominently in each newscast of the day on Russia's state television channels.
"Your name is a symbol of a wise politician and a strong leader in Russia and the world," Saint Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko wrote to the president in an open letter. "You returned to Russians their confidence in tomorrow."
An exhibition dedicated to Putin, called "A Man of the Kindest Soul", was opening Sunday in a Moscow art centre. Black Labradors, the same breed of dog as Putin's pet Connie, were expected at the show.
Molodaya Gvardiya, a pro-Kremlin youth movement, posted a video on their website of young women assembling to greet an arriving Putin with a cake after participating in various activities associated with the Russian leader.
One, wearing a "Putin" hockey jersey, is shown scoring a goal in a USA-Putin match before receiving a text message saying, "I'm on my way," presumably from the president. She then winks at the camera, smiling seductively.
Putin's sports hobbies were also featured in a rare up-close-and-personal special made by the NTV channel that aired Sunday during prime time. The filmmakers trailed Putin for a week, even taking the camera to a swimming pool.
Putin has famously styled himself as a macho sportsman, swimming the butterfly in wild Siberian rivers, fly-fishing shirtless and riding on horseback for the cameras.
But Russian bloggers snickered that Putin's image of a young and energetic leader no longer corresponded with his age. "Lenin at 52 was nicknamed 'Grandpa Lenin'," wrote one Twitter user, referring to Russia's revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, who died at 53.
Putin's opposition also made jabs at the president's age, with one rally planned for the day called "Let's Send Grandpa to Retirement!"
Feminist punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members have been jailed for two years for staging a performance protesting his rule, said it was "important to say tender words on a person's birthday".
"Putin told our members about the 'little two years',"Pussy Riot said in a sarcastic reaction on Twitter.
"A little two years there, a little five years there," opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote. "Misha got a little eight," he said, referring to jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's sentence.
Putin again hailed the jail sentences against Pussy Riot, according to a report Sunday.
"It was right to arrest them, and it was right that the court took the decision that it did," he said over NTV, the Interfax news agency said.
"One cannot undermine the moral foundations, break up the country. What would we be left with?" Putin reportedly said of the Pussy Riot performance in a Moscow cathedral in February that led to their sentence.
He added that he had not exerted any pressure in the sentencing of the women. He also addressed the subject of the opposition movement in the NTV special, admitting that "there are people who disagree with some things."
"But we should not act as if it applies to all our citizens. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority supports (me), which allows me to perform the state duties that I have until now," he said.
A survey by independent pollster Levada this week showed that despite his age, Putin was still popular with the ladies, with 20 percent of Russian women saying they would like to marry him.
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 third term. -AFP
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