Will Putin's Divorce Have Political Fallout in Russia?

Article excerpt

Russians were in shock Friday after President Vladimir Putin announced, on a 24-hour cable news network, that he will be divorcing his wife Lyudmila, just one month short of what would have been their 30th wedding anniversary.

Many Russians are speculating on Mr. Putin's reasons for taking what is, for Russian leaders, the highly unusual step of divorcing his wife. The last Russian leader to publicly ditch his official spouse was Putin's own personal hero, Peter the Great, and that occurred over 300 years ago.

Some experts say Putin may have just wanted to end what may have become for himself and Lyudmilla a tiresome fiction. Others say his motives might be the same as any number of kings and czars of the past, who get rid of one wife in order to acquire a new one.

"It's possible that he'll remarry. Why not?" says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

"If that is indeed his reason, he'll probably want to move quickly. When the next presidential election cycle comes around in less than five years, he'll want to have that relationship firmly established," he says.

Choreographed announcement

It's been obvious for some time that Putin and his wife were leading separate lives, but little else has been known since the Kremlin clamps a very tight lid on any news about Russia's first family. Like many Soviet wives in the past, Lyudmila Putina had been something of a gray blur, appearing at a few public events with her husband - the last time was at his inauguration just over a year ago - but otherwise keeping out of the limelight.

In what was clearly a pre-arranged and carefully-choreographed public message, Mr. and Mrs. Putin stepped out of their private loge at the Grand Kremlin Palace theater Thursday night, where a journalist for the state-owned Russia-24 network suddenly appeared and, after a bit of small talk, asked the president an unthinkable question: "You appear in public together so rarely, and there are rumors that you don't live together. Are they true?"

That was the cue for Putin to explain that the marriage was over.

"All my activity, all my work is connected to being in the public eye. Some people like this, some don't, but there are people who are completely incompatible with this," he said, adding that Lyudmila had been "standing watch" in the capacity of first lady for nine years.

"This really was our mutual decision," Mrs. Putina said. "I really do dislike life in the public eye and air travel is very difficult for me. And we hardly see each other."

At the end of the interview Putin added a remark that was clearly aimed at quelling the endless rumors about the whereabouts of the Putins' two fully grown daughters, Maria and Yekaterina, who have not been seen in public for years.

"Lyudmila Alexandrovna mentioned our children," Putin said, using his wife's name and patronymic in the formal Russian style.

"We love them very much. …