Vladimir Putin yesterday began a historic third term as Russian president in a glittering Kremlin ceremony overshadowed by the arrests of hundreds in protests against his 12-year domination of Russia.
Putin, head of state from 2000 to 2008, took over from outgoing Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, swearing to protect the rights of Russian citizens and also pledging a “new stage” in Russia’s development.
The Kremlin bells echoed across Moscow and the presidential guard donned Tsarist-era uniforms for the brief, but spectacular inauguration, whose guests included old friends of Putin, including former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Soon after his inauguration, Putin proposed Medvedev as the new prime minister under a job swap agreement first announced last year. The lower house of parliament’s speaker, Sergei Naryshkin, said Putin submitted Medvedev’s name for confirmation shortly after taking the oath of office.
The State Duma lower house is expected to hold a special session today to consider Medvedev’s candidacy. Medvedev’s confirmation is all but certain after both the ruling United Russia party and the LDPR group of the veteran populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky promised to support Putin’s choice.
During the inauguration, Putin placed his hand on a copy of the constitution and swore to “respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the people” and defend Russia’s security as he officially took over from Medvedev.
Yet activists accuse Putin of systematically sacrificing rights in the pursuit of stability and lacking legitimacy after his knockout March 4 election victory with 63.6 percent of the vote, which was marred by claims of fraud.
The eve of the ceremony saw the worst clashes yet between police and anti-Putin protesters when a mass opposition demonstration descended into chaos and security forces wielded their batons to arrest hundreds of people.
Police said that 436 people were detained at Sunday’s protest, including the anti-Putin leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, who now face the prospect of spending at least the next two weeks in jail. Yesterday, Moscow police had arrested another 120 people, including liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, during an unsanctioned rally against the inauguration close to the Kremlin walls. Police said they would all be released after a warning.
The inauguration was marked by needle-sharp choreography, with Putin driven from the government headquarters through eerily deserted Moscow streets blocked off by police and then into the Kremlin itself.
As well as Berlusconi, other notable guests included Putin’s wife, Lyudmila, who has been rarely seen in public in recent years, and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Minutes after the Kremlin ceremony, Medvedev passed Putin the black “nuclear suitcase” with the codes that control the country’s vast nuclear arsenal, official images showed.
Guests at a lavish reception later were served fine Russian dishes, including sturgeon steak and smoked cod washed down by Kremlin vodka and an astonishing 5,000 bottles of 2008 Abrau Durso shampanskoye — Russian sparkling wine, RIA Novosti reported.