Vladimir Putin is back in the house

As Dmitry Medvedev is also confirmed as his prime minister

Oliver Carroll
Monday 07 May 2018 16:46
Vladimir Putin takes oath of office for fourth term

In the gilded halls of the Grand Kremlin Palace, its construction a nod to the durability of autocracy, Vladimir Putin was on Monday officially returned to the Russian presidency.

Hand on the constitution, the fourth-term president, who was first elected in 2000, swore allegiance to his people and country, inspected his presidential guard, and then watched as a 30-cannon salute marked the start of a new era.

But for many, Mr Putin’s new term began on Saturday, with the message sent by the uncompromising clampdown of an opposition rally. Organiser Alexei Navalny was one of a record 1,600 people detained in nation-wide protests that day. The arrests were often violent, and sometimes with the support of unofficial vigilante forces.

Police released Mr Navalny later that evening, but many of his supporters remained in custody throughout the inauguration.

Today’s ceremony mainly followed the protocol of previous years, but there were departures. The major innovation was the debut of Mr Putin’s new 12.5bn ruble limousine, the “Kortezh”. But the car would not sweep through central Moscow as six years ago. The image of a depopulated city centre on lockdown that day left an awkward aftertaste, and today there would be no repeat.

Instead, Mr Putin’s new limousine made the short trip from his Kremlin offices to the ceremonial halls.

Inside, dignitaries included some of Mr Putin’s closest friends, like the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and American actor Steven Seagal. There were the stars of Russia’s beau monde – from film director Nikita Mikhalkov to rapper Timati. And there was a mix of the stranger symbols of Mr Putin’s rule: biker Alexander Zaldostanov, aka “the surgeon”; the uber-loyal head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill; and the tsar-worshipping, ultra-conservative Natalia Poklonskaya.

Pro-Kremlin youth and the heads of the regional electoral commission were also on the guest list. These groups were the sergeants of March’s presidential elections, considered a great success. That vote returned Mr Putin with a 77 per cent share, and proved to be a disaster for the liberal opposition.

Looking relaxed, contented, and not without swagger, Mr Putin delivered a short address. The message was simple enough. The president repeated the promises of a decisive technological breakthrough he first made during his state-of-the-nation speech in March. But he was notably less belligerent this time. Nuclear weapons had given way to motherhood, youth and raising living standards.

“Russia has been through troubles before,” he said. “And we always rise above them, like a Phoenix.”

Later in the day, the president confirmed that, as expected, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would retain his role as head of the government. According to some sources, Mr Putin was also likely to appoint the liberal reformer Alexei Kudrin to a top economic post.

Mr Putin’s fourth term is likely to be characterised by new investments in healthcare, education, and in technical modernisation. These will mostly be paid for by increased taxes, given the limited appetite for serious reform.

“No one is debating whether to reject crony capitalism, state control of business and the economy, or the confrontation with the West,” said Valery Solovey, professor of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. “Of course, this is why there will be no real breakthrough”.

According to a poll published on Monday by the independent Levada Centre, Russians say welfare and inequality remain the government’s biggest failure to date. The Kremlin fares better when it comes to foreign policy, with half mentioning the return of great power status as Mr Putin’s major achievement.

The combination of both factors means political liberalisation is unlikely to be around the corner, Mr Solovey said.

“It is too early to make strategic conclusions,” said Mr Solovey. “But if confrontation with the West and social tensions continue on their current trajectory, domestic policy is only going to get tougher.”

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