MOSCOW - Hold the Botox! The latest rumors swirling around the Kremlin suggest Vladimir Putin needs a makeover, dropping his macho, macho man refrain in favor of some crinkly-eyed gravitas.
Putin's usual sky-high ratings have been slipping, the people around him are constantly pestered with questions about his health, and gossip persists that powerful behind-the-scenes string-pullers, known as the elite, are locked in an ugly struggle over the country's direction.
What's a 60-year-old president to do? The answer comes in a purportedly secret Kremlin policy paper: Forget the jet-piloting, bare-chested-hunter look. Cue the wise elder statesman.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismisses such talk as utterly ridiculous. But it surfaced earlier this week in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, which reported that it had obtained a Kremlin document arguing for the Putin rebranding, while embracing the milder liberals around him instead of the hard-talking tough guys. Political analysts took the story as a trial balloon and offered their own ideas of a touch-up.
"No wrinkles, absolutely not," Alexei Makarkin said. "No gray hair."
Yes, said Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, Putin should stop diving into the sea and returning with ancient Greek amphoras, one photo op that was later acknowledged as staged. He should stop dressing as a crane and flying a glider to guide birds into the wild. But in ancient Russia, he should not look old.
"Aging people are consultants," he said. "His voters are expecting very active work, someone who can guarantee the security of the country, solve economic problems, take care of education and health care. Better not draw attention to his age."
For most of his 12 years in the national spotlight, Putin has had enviable political magic, apparently solving the nation's problems as effortlessly as he threw a judo partner. He seemed ever-youthful: a year ago, his wrinkle-free face prompted talk that he had had a face-lift, Botox, or both.
But over the last year, rallies against him have attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators. A Public Opinion Foundation poll in November found Putin's confidence rating had dropped from 55 percent in March to 42 percent last month. He was once, almost unimaginably, booed in public. Signs of a limp in September and a limited travel schedule touched off rumors of a serious health problem - denied, denied, denied.
"His ratings are going down, the economy is not so great," said Dmitri Oreshkin, a political commentator. "So what do you do? Change the image."
Oreshkin said that may be harder to accomplish than the Kremlin thinks.
"Who is Mr. Putin?" he asked rhetorically. "His image was formed long ago. Mr. Putin is a KGB man, and he is not going to change."
The president has scheduled a major speech for Wednesday, when he delivers a state of the nation address to parliament. The country will be watching.