Last act in the Putin show?

(dpa) -  When it comes to putting on a show, there is nobody quite like Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Friday's summit meeting between NATO leaders and the Russian president in Bucharest seemed to be running like clockwork, and to be providing about as much drama.

Delegates arrived, they delivered their opening speeches, NATO's secretary general summed up the meeting for the press, and reporters gathered in the massive hall of Romania's parliamentary palace to await a briefing with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Then Putin walked in.

It is not often that journalists break into applause before a press conference has even started, but that tradition went up in smoke as reporters around the hall clapped, laughed or lunged for their mobile phones to alert their editors of the change.

Standing in his trademark upright posture behind a transparent plastic podium, Putin was in his element as he spoke for almost 45 minutes on Russia, NATO, global security and his own feelings.

And despite insisting that Russia has no desire to play first violin in internationally-orchestrated talks on the Middle East peace process, his own performance was as assured as that of any operatic soloist as he came out with an apparently effortless series of gripping sound-bites.

"What can be done without Russia? ... It's better to talk than to shoot ... NATO isn't a democratizer ... No global player, not Europe, not the US, not Russia, has any interest in returning to the past."

Putin may not have enjoyed the easiest relationship with the media in his eight years in power, but there was no doubt on Friday that he loved performing for them, sweeping through the emotions and carrying his audience with him.

As he struck the positive notes - the predominant theme in his symphony of sound-bites - his stance was buoyant, relaxed and controlled, in keeping with the cautious optimism of his message that the meeting had been constructive.

"Come on guys, let's be friends," he urged with a fleeting grin - the "guys" in question being the prime ministers and heads of state of NATO's 26 member countries.

As he turned to the negative aspects which ran through his speech like a counter-theme in a minor key, his voice became sharper and his gestures more expansive, conducting his message home.

"Many people have said that Russia is not cooperating, but why should we accommodate someone else to the detriment of our own security?" he asked before returning to his signature theme, "it seems to me our concerns have been heard today."

And there might almost have been a tear in his eye as he spoke of his relief at the fact that he is soon to step down, with more than one journalist in the room growing visibly emotional along with him.

"I, like any person who is responsible for his or her duties, am looking forward to removing the burden (of directing Russia's foreign policy). This is a long-awaited freedom," he said.

It was, by any standards, a masterly performance, fully deserving the applause which followed him as he left the stage.

And more than one Russian journalist commented afterwards that his departure would make their job far less colourful - pulling wry faces at Putin's own comment that they would "have some interesting times" with his less than flamboyant successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

But just as operatic prima donnas' "final performances" tend to end up less final than they seemed, it remains open to question how lasting Putin's adieu will really be.

He is universally expected to follow his presidential duties by taking up the post of prime minister under Medvedev, a position which offers more than enough opportunities for press appearances.

And under Russia's constitution, there is nothing to stop him running for office again once Medvedev, in turn, steps down.

Indeed, some analysts say that the handover of power is nothing but a ruse, and that in four years' time, or eight at the most, the West can expect to see President Putin taking centre stage again.

That being the case, it remains to be seen whether the applause which followed Putin on Friday was really a farewell ovation - or just the first in a very long series of curtain calls.

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