Vladimir Putin starts again – with crackdown on dissent

Returning President speaks of democracy and openness as hundreds are detained


As the Kremlin clock struck noon, Vladimir Putin strode through several sets of gold doors along an expanse of red carpet and on to the podium in one of the Kremlin's most lavish halls. With an expression that flickered between a smirk and a grimace, he laid one hand on a copy of the Russian constitution and was inaugurated as President of Russia for a new six-year term.

But while inside the Kremlin there was all the pomp and high ceremony that befits the venue, outside central Moscow was cleared as if for a military operation and police detained more than 100 protesters.

A day after a huge rally descended into violent clashes and hundreds of arrests, the police were taking no chances and blocked off all the roads down which Mr Putin's cortege would travel, and the whole area around the Kremlin. The limousine, flanked by half a dozen motorcycle outriders, glided towards the Kremlin through eerily deserted streets.

"I consider service to the fatherland and our nation to be the meaning of my life," said Mr Putin to the packed hall after he had taken his oath. "We want to live and we will live in a democratic country where everyone has the freedom and opportunity to apply their talent and labour, their energy. We want to live and we will live in a successful Russia, which is respected in the world as a reliable, open, honest and predictable partner."

In the short speech, Mr Putin called for unity and said the coming years would be decisive for Russia. "We will achieve our goals if we are a single, united people," said Mr Putin, who first became President in 2000 and now returns after four years as Prime Minister, during which time he was still widely regarded as the most powerful person in the country.

Even as Mr Putin spoke of unity, however, opposition activists were being rounded up and arrested. Police in body armour chased protesters around the central Boulevard Ring to make sure they got nowhere near the route of the official cortege. By the afternoon, police were simply detaining anyone spotted wearing a white ribbon, which has become the unofficial symbol of the opposition to Mr Putin. In the morning, riot police descended on Jean-Jacques, a faux-Parisian bistro popular with the Moscow intellectual class, and arrested patrons at random, tossing them into waiting trucks.

More than 100 people were detained over the course of the day, in addition to 450 who were detained at the protest on Sunday, which also left 17 people in hospital, including many riot police.

Yesterday, opposition leaders including Alexei Navalny, a blogger, were released with a 1,000 rouble (£20) fine. Moscow authorities said the arrests on Sunday only began when "provocators" in the crowd started attacking police, and Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov complained that police were "too gentle" with protesters.

Some male detainees who had not served their compulsory time in the Russian army were ordered to report to conscription points in the coming weeks, in what is perhaps a scare tactic to keep people away from protests.

"Putin looked sad today," said Sergei Udaltsov, a radical leftist leader who was also arrested on Sunday and released yesterday. "You can disperse a protest once, you can disperse it twice, but at some point so many people will come out on to the streets that they won't have enough buses or police stations to deal with everyone."

Guests at yesterday's inauguration included the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a personal friend of Mr Putin, as well as the entire top echelon of Russian officials.

Mr Putin's wife Ludmila, who is rarely seen in public, was also in attendance. During the brief camera shots of her, she looked uncomfortable and appeared to be shaking.

Also present was Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. Dmitry Medvedev, the outgoing President who was handpicked by Mr Putin to take over from him in 2008, will now become Prime Minister.

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