A Russian tabloid has set the country abuzz with a report that Vladimir Putin is secretly preparing to marry a leggy 24-year-old gymnast, voted the most beautiful woman in Russia.
The little known paper Moskovsky Korrespondent reported a week ago that a reliable source had revealed that plans were underway for a wedding between Mr Putin and Alina Kabayeva, an Olympic gold medallist, which would take place on 15 June, a month after Mr Putin hands the Presidency to his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. As more and more people heard the rumour as the week went on, internet forums were full of discussion of the possible presidential marriage.
But yesterday, Alexander Lebedev, the billionaire and parliamentarian who owns the paper, published a statement on the paper's website that said he personally thought the article was: "Nonsense, based on a 'very reliable' source in the Agency of Old Wives Tales".
Mr Lebedev wrote that he never interfered in editorial policy but said that the editorial staff now had two options: "Either prove that it's true or, at a minimum, apologise."
The article, subtitled "The Sarkozy Syndrome", stated that Mr Putin had divorced his wife, Ludmilla, two months ago and was preparing for a wedding in St Petersburg's Constantine Palace on 15 June.
Ms Kabayeva, who was recently voted the most beautiful woman in the country by the readers of a Russian magazine, became a parliamentary deputy late last year after the pro-Putin United Russia party moved to include more young, attractive women in the Duma.
With his strongman image and bulging biceps, the 56-year-old President is regarded as quite a catch among Russian women. He even featured in a 2002 hit song called "A man like Putin", where his qualities were listed as a man who would not drink, insult his wife or walk out.
Mr Putin himself has been out of the country this week, first visiting Libya for talks with Colonel Gaddafi, and then travelling to Silvio Berlusconi's Italian villa on Saturday, where his host has built an artificial volcano to entertain his guests.
But the rumour has still not received an official denial from either the Kremlin or the gymnast herself, a week after it first appeared.
When the newspaper's journalists contacted Ms Kabayeva's spokeswoman this week, she told them she had to think before replying. Several hours later, she responded that Ms Kabayeva had no comment.
"We are not going to comment on this nonsense," the spokeswoman said when contacted by The Independent yesterday. When asked whether or not Mr Putin and Ms Kabayeva were friends, she paused before saying that any questions should be addressed to the presidential press service. Only Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's spokesman, was authorised to comment, said the press service. Mr Peskov has been uncontactable in Libya all week.
It is an open secret that not all is well in Mr Putin's marriage, and his wife has been appearingby his side less and less as his Presidency went on.
A fiercely private person, Mr Putin has always shied away from answering questions about his wife and daughters, and however implausible the current rumour may be, the chances are that if Mr Putin was arranging a new marriage it would remain secret until the last minute.
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