April 18, 2008 / 12:59 PM / 11 years ago

Russia's Putin denies he plans to marry gymnast

PORTO ROTONDO, Sardinia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin on Friday denied reports he was planning to marry Russian Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, telling journalists to keep their “snotty noses” out of his private life.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) smiles next to Russian gymnast Alina Kabayeva during the meeting with the Russian Olympic team in Moscow's Kremlin, November 4, 2004. Putin on Friday denied reports he was planning to marry Kabayeva, telling journalists to keep their "snotty noses" out of his private life. REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

Media had reported that Putin had secretly divorced his wife, Lyudmila, and planned to marry the 24-year-old Olympic champion.

“In what you said, there is not one word of truth,” Putin said when asked about the reports by a Russian newspaper journalist at a news briefing with Italy’s Prime Minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi.

“I have always reacted negatively to those who with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies prowl into others’ lives,” Putin said.

Putin, 55, has cultivated a tough-guy, manly image during his eight years in the Kremlin, posing for photos aboard fighter jets, firing weapons, competing in judo as a black-belt and fishing bare-chested in the Siberian wilderness.

The former KGB spy has kept his private life out of the media and reports about his family are very rare in the mainstream Russian press, which is careful to follow Kremlin guidance on coverage.

Until the news briefing in Italy, most of the Russian media had not touched the story.

Putin said media had mentioned a host of women including Kabayeva and Russian television journalist Yekaterina Andreyeva in articles about his private life.

“In other such publications other successful, beautiful young women and girls have been mentioned. I don’t think it will be a surprise if I say that I like them all - because they are all Russian women,” Putin said with a smile.

“I think no one will get offended if I say that I personally consider that our Russian women are the most talented and most beautiful. And if anyone can be competition for them then it is only Italian women,” he said.

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Moskovsky Korrespondent, a small newspaper founded by lawmaker Alexander Lebedev, ran a story last Saturday saying plans were being laid in Putin’s home city of St Petersburg for a lavish summer wedding between Putin and Kabayeva.

Lebedev has since ordered journalists on the paper to either back the story up with proof or retract it.

Putin married Lyudmila, a former air hostess, in July 1983 and they have two daughters who are both in their twenties.

Lyudmila speaks three foreign languages and lived with Putin during his tour as a KGB agent in East Germany from 1986-1990. A fan of theatre, music and winter sports, she has at times looked uncomfortable with her official role.

Putin is not seen frequently in public with Lyudmila, 50, and he does not take her on most of his foreign trips.

Kabayeva, whose website www.alinakabaeva.narod.ru proclaims her “the most magnificent gymnast in the world”, was born in Uzbekistan. She won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens for rhythmic gymnastics, retired from the sport shortly afterwards and made a brief comeback attempt in 2006.

Recruited into Putin’s United Russia party as part of a wave of young celebrities, Kabayeva was elected a deputy in the State Duma, parliament’s lower house, last December.

Reporting in Moscow by Guy Faulconbridge, Michael Stott and Chris Baldwin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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