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The new side of Russias Vladimir Putin: a ladys man?
Putin Women NY115 7748172
In this Thursday Nov. 4, 2004 file photo made available by the Presidential Press Service, President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with gymnast Alina Kabayeva as he hosts Russia's Olympic athletes at a Kremlin banquet in Moscow. Putin on Friday April 18, 2008 denied a tabloid report that he had divorced his wife and intended to marry Kabayeva, a champion gymnast less than half his age. - photo by Associated Press
    PORTO ROTONDO, Sardinia — Perhaps it was the setting — one of Italy’s most romantic resorts. Or the company — standing next to Italy’s famously flirtatious premier.
    But the normally stern Vladimir Putin showed the world another side of his character Friday, laughing off questions about an extramarital affair with a champion gymnast. While Putin denied the rumors, he seemed to delight in projecting a new image to the world: lady’s man.
    The news conference that followed meetings at Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi’s lavish Sardinian villa started off with standard political fare: toasts to bilateral ties, talk of business deals.
    Things took a racy turn when a Kremlin journalist asked the Russian president about tabloid reports he had divorced his wife and intended to marry a gymnast less than half his age.
    While Putin’s denial was categorical — ‘‘Not a single word of truth’’ — he proceeded to embark on a gushing paean to the fairer sex.
    ‘‘In other publications of the same type, the names of other successful, beautiful young women from Russia are mentioned,’’ Putin began. ‘‘I think it won’t be unexpected if I say that I like them all — just as I like all Russian women.’’
    Russian women, he declared, are ‘‘the most talented and beautiful’’ in the world.
    ‘‘If anyone can compete, it may be only Italian women,’’ Putin said.
    At that, Berlusconi laughed and raised his eyebrows in approval. The reporters cheered and applauded.
    The Italian premier-elect, who triumphed in elections this week, has long been a friend and political ally of Putin — and he was quick to show his loyalty.
    He mockingly pretended to mow down the offending reporter with a machine gun, then jokingly proposed swapping the Russian press with the Italian press.
    Berlusconi likes to play the lady’s man himself, and last year he was publicly rebuked by his wife for his flirtatious behavior with other women. He quickly responded with a love letter that was also published in a newspaper.
    Putin, while not often cast as a Casanova, has never shied away from presenting a virile image.
    He’s been photographed practicing judo, at the cockpit of a fighter jet, and skiing down Alpine slopes. Last August, he caused a stir by stripping off his shirt for the cameras while on holiday with Prince Albert II of Monaco in the Siberian mountains.
    However, womanizing has not been part of his public persona.
    The tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent reported Saturday that Putin, 55, divorced his wife, Lyudmila, two months ago and planned to marry Alina Kabayeva, 24, a former champion rhythmic gymnast. His wife did not accompany him to Sardinia.
    Kabayeva, who won a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Games, is now a member of the lower house of Russia’s parliament from the pro-Kremlin party.
    Putin, using the earthy language that has become his trademark, scolded the press for intruding on his private life.
    ‘‘I have always had a negative opinion of those who, with their snotty noses and their erotic fantasies, meddle in other people’s lives,’’ he said.
    The Web site of Moskovsky Korrespondent was taken off-line Friday. The Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy cited the head of the paper’s publishing house, Artyom Artyomov, as saying the publication had been halted because of excess spending. He was also quoted as saying there were internal disagreements at the paper.
    Putin and Berlusconi’s friendship goes back to Berlusconi’s last government, from 2001-2006, during which he frequently defended Putin in the face of international concerns over the state of democracy in Russia.
    The private talks at Berlusconi’s sprawling complex on the posh Costa Smeralda — or Emerald Coast — included a performance by dancers from a popular show who typically are scantily clad, which Berlusconi said Putin appreciated.
    Berlusconi said everything is easier when there is ‘‘esteem, trust, respect and friendship.’’
    ‘‘It is a deep friendship, which, as in all things in life, helps better understanding and making decisions for the best — in this case in the interest not only of our countries but of the global community.’’
    Associated Press Writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report from Moscow.

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