Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images(MOSCOW) — Vladimir Putin on Monday was sworn in for a fourth term as Russia’s president in an elaborate ceremony at the Kremlin, opening another six years ruling the country where he has already been in power for almost two decades.
Putin took the oath of office in the gold-encrusted St. Andrews hall, where Russia’s tsars were once crowned. The televised ceremony on Monday began with a staged scene in which cameras appeared to come upon Putin in his shirt-sleeves in his Kremlin office, as though he was interrupted during his ordinary workday.
Putin, who has tried to cultivate an image as a tireless servant of Russia, then put on his jacket and walked silently for several minutes down the building’s long, empty corridors, seeming to pause at one point as though inspecting some paintings hanging on a wall.
He then rode a few hundred yards across the Kremlin grounds in a phalanx of police bikes, seated in a new Russian-built limousine unveiled especially for the inauguration.
At exactly midday, Putin entered the hall for the ceremony, walking along a red carpet lined by hundreds of Russia’s rich and powerful. He took the oath of office with his hand placed upon a copy of Russia’s constitution, swearing to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens.
In a speech after the oath, Putin said that Russia faced “historic” tasks and the country needs a “leap forward in all spheres of life.” After noting that Russia’s “defense capabilities,” were now “reliably supported,” he focused on a need for Russia to develop economically and said he believed democracy was essential for that to be achieved.
“I am certain that such a leap can be achieved only be a free society,” Putin said.
Those words may ring hollow given the form of Putin’s re-election. Putin was won almost 77 percent of the vote in mid-March — a vast margin that reflects in part his popularity among Russians, but also the country’s heavily controlled political scene, where media is dominated by the Kremlin and most serious political opponents have been sidelined.
International monitors have criticized the election saying the voters were pressured and had no real choice other than Putin due to the lack of competitors on the ballot.
Putin has now ruled Russia longer than any leader since Joseph Stalin, building a highly centralized system that has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years.
First elected in 2000, as the anointed successor to then-ailing president Boris Yeltsin, Putin has now ruled Russia for 18 years. He held the presidency for all of those years but four, during which he shuffled to the prime minister’s office to skirt constitutional term limits.
On Saturday thousands of people demonstrated against Putin in rallies across Russia, using the slogan, “He’s not a tsar to us.” Police responded by violently dispersing the protests, clubbing demonstrators and arresting 1,600 people. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who called some of the protests, was also arrested.
“As long as I have been alive, he has been a president,” Igor, a 19 year-old student who declined to give his full name for fear of retribution, told ABC News in the midst of a protest in Moscow on Saturday, in which riot police dragged people around him away. “They are arresting people, and beating them, just for holding political signs. That’s not democracy, that’s dictatorship.”
Putin remains popular among the majority of Russians, however, who credit him with restoring Russia’s prestige abroad and some economic prosperity at home.
The presidential administration had indicated it wanted a slightly more accessible ceremony this year. So, after inspecting the Kremlin guard, Putin briefly mingled and talked awkwardly with groups of young volunteers outside the hall. As at previous inaugurations, he followed a tsarist tradition of receiving a blessing from the head of the Orthodox Church, in the Kremlin’s cathedral of the Annunciation.
The inauguration was attended by 5,000 guests including politicians, military and religious leaders, as well as television celebrities and sports stars. Also present were some of the eclectic figures that have accumulated around Putin, including the 80s action movie star Steven Seagal, who has become a fixture of Moscow high-life. The former German president, Gerhard Schröder, stood in the front row. Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of a pro-Putin biker gang called the Night Wolves entered wearing a Mad Max-style leather breast-plate over a dress-shirt.
With Putin’s re-election never in doubt, attention has instead focused on what will happen when his term ends in 2024. Russia’s constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms, meaning that theoretically this ought to be Putin’s last. Moscow is awash with theories of how Putin will handle that transition. There is speculation about whether he will anoint a successor, as Yeltsin did with him or — in a scenario considered far more likely — he might alter the constitution and create a new super-position that would effectively make him president for life.
“By the constitution, this is Putin’s last term,” Konstantin Gaaze, a liberal political commentator said in a phone interview. “That by itself makes this term special. Putin has to decide the question of power. Decide either to whom to pass power or to leave it with himself.”
Gaaze said he believes there is little chance of Putin giving up power and noted it is hard to imagine how Putin could hand full power to a successor who must inevitably be less popular.
“If Putin had got 65 percent of the vote, that would have made him a very popular politician,” he said. “But … 76 percent has made him a demi-god. You can’t [exchange] a demi-god at the head of the country for an ordinary person.”
Another central question of Putin’s new term is whether relations with the United States and Europe will continue to decline. Beginning with the Ukrainian revolution in 2014 and Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the deepening confrontations have spiralled into a broad standoff around the world. From the Syrian civil war to Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, recent months have seen relations grind lower, amid repeated rounds of diplomatic expulsions and sanctions.
Some observers in Russia have predicted that Putin will focus more on domestic issues, sensing a desire to end the stand-off with the U.S.
“Basically, he would like to make Russia an economically successful country. The confrontation with the West makes that difficult,” said Igor Bunin, a political analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, which sometimes advises the government. “In principle, the Kremlin is ready for negotiations.”
The problem, Bunin noted, is that Russia may not have much to offer in exchange for improving relations, particularly since confronting the West has become a key component of Putin’s pitch to Russians.
Speaking outside the hall at the inauguration, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov gave little indication the Kremlin was planning a softer approach, telling ABC News, that Moscow expected Western countries to adjust their attitudes to Russia.
“We expect that the U.S., U.K. [and] the European Union will normalize their attitudes towards Russia,” Ryabkov said. “I think if you take the reality the way it is, I think many things will be much easier. And that’s my very strong advice to your elites, who somehow misunderstand about Russia.”
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