Putin sworn in as president amid protests


VLADIMIR PUTIN was sworn in as Russia’s president in the golden splendour of the Kremlin Palace yesterday, while riot police in Moscow cracked down on protests against his rule.

Mr Putin, who turns 60 this year, has begun a six-year term that puts him on course to become Russia’s longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin presided over the Soviet Union. The former KGB spy has been prime minister since 2008 and served as president for eight years before that.

Mr Putin has not ruled out running for a fourth term, which could see him in office until 2024, when he will be 72. “Today we are entering a new phase of national development. The next few years will be defining for Russia in the decades ahead,” he said after swearing the oath of office in a palace built for 19th-century ruler Tsar Nicholas I.

Among the 2,000 guests were Mr Putin’s old friend former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who called on Mr Putin to resign last December when tens of thousands took to the streets in protest against alleged vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.

“We want to live and we will live in a democratic country,” Mr Putin said in a speech that did not mention opposition forces who have mounted some of the biggest protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As the choreographed ceremony was unfolding, Moscow police were rounding up anti-Putin protesters. Police confirmed at lunchtime that they detained 120 people, including Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who now leads the Solidarity opposition movement.

“[The police] beat me, they tore my clothes,” Mr Nemtsov told Ria Novosti news wire.

Later in the day more arrests followed at the Clean Ponds Boulevard, a tree-lined walkway popular with strollers. These skirmishes were on a small scale compared to a demonstration on Sunday that brought thousands of people to an island south of the Kremlin, as lines of riot police five-deep blocked the road to Red Square.

More than 400 people were arrested after a peaceful, almost festive, start to the protest. Ilya Ponomarev, a parliamentary deputy who leads the Left Front party, wrote that police had been ready to provoke people.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s press secretary, said police had not been harsh enough.

Security was very evident yesterday. Helicopters buzzed overhead and dozens of police vans were parked in different parts of the capital. Red Square and its environs were closed, as was the road that Mr Putin travelled on from the White House, the prime minister’s office, to the Kremlin.

“The president is afraid of the people,” said Nina Gulcheva (89), a pensioner seated 500m (1,600ft) from the Kremlin. “Putin and Medvedev swap power like a children’s game – ‘this year I am president, next year, your turn’. They treat people like fools.”

The pensioner, who wore a homemade sign around her neck that read “A thief should not sit in the Kremlin”, said she was insulted that she could not protest any closer to the Kremlin.

Mr Putin was re-elected to the presidency in March after a vote that international monitors described as skewed in his favour.

Guests at the inauguration were expected to toast Mr Putin’s return with a premium vodka specially blended for official ceremonies and Abrau-Durso “champagne”, a premium sparkling wine produced near Russia’s Black Sea. Although the menu was a closely guarded secret, the 12 million rouble (€306,000) feast was rumoured to include smoked halibut, sturgeon steaks and hors d’oeuvre with crab from Kamchatka, the wildlife-rich peninsula in Russia’s far east.

A further 20 million roubles were spent on the ceremony, which included a 30-gun military salute and parade.

When the plates are cleared, Russia watchers are not expecting a change of course. “It is essentially the same government, the same regime, with some personnel changes,” said Peter Semneby, an expert on Russia and eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund think tank. “The priority will be to enhance Russia’s standing in the world, which will come before substance.”

Russia’s leaders will need to show “more policies than posturing” to stay in power, he added.

“The key to maintaining the standing of the government will be related to the evaluation of policies rather than raw strength, as it has been in the past. In this sense Russia has changed for the better.”

Dmitry Medvedev, who relinquished the presidency to Mr Putin, is expected to be confirmed today as prime minister by Russia’s parliament.