Putin’s ‘girlfriend’ Alina Kabayeva to head pro-Kremlin media group

Former Olympic gymnastics champion to quit as MP in Russian president’s party to take control of National Media Group

Alina Kabayeva, a former Olympic gymnastics champion long rumoured to be Vladimir Putin’s girlfriend, has been appointed to run a major pro-Kremlin media group.

Kabayeva spent more than six years as an MP, one of many high-achievers in the sports and entertainment fields to represent Putin’s United Russia party, before announcing on Monday she was stepping down from parliament to take up control of the media holding.

The National Media Group owns 25% of Channel One, Russia’s main state-controlled television channel, and also owns stakes in other channels and newspapers, including a majority share of the influential Izvestia daily.

The group is controlled by Yuri Kovalchuk, a longstanding friend of Putin who was sanctioned by the US earlier this year due to his closeness to the Russian president.

Kabayeva with torchKabayeva with the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Games. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

A spokeswoman for the group confirmed Kabayeva’s appointment but did not give details about when she would start, or what qualifications she had for the role. She previously hosted a television chat show but is not thought to have any experience in media management.

Kabayeva won gold in the 2004 Olympics for rhythmic gymnastics and was also a flag-bearer during the opening ceremony of this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

In 2008, newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent alleged that Putin had secretly divorced his wife Lyudmila and was planning to wed Kabayeva. Putin vehemently denied the rumour, and when asked about it during a press conference castigated journalists prying into his private life “with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies”.

The newspaper, which was owned by Evening Standard and Independent owner Alexander Lebedev, closed down shortly after. Kabayeva has also denied rumours about the affair, as well as claims she and Putin had a child together.

Putin and KabayevaPresident Vladimir Putin’s relationship with Alina Kabayeva is the subject of wide speculation.

Very little is known about Putin’s private and family life, and the Russian media rarely discuss the subject. Putin and Lyudmila publicly announced their divorce during a television interview last year after years of rumours they had separated, with public appearances together becoming infrequent and awkward.

After the announcement about Putin’s divorce, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no other woman in Putin’s life. “It’s very easy just to take a quick look at Putin’s working schedule and understand that there is no space for family relations in his life, which is fully taken up with his responsibilities as head of the state,” he said.

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