Vladimir Putin was sworn in as Russia’s president at a glittering ceremony on Monday, hours after clashes between police and protesters laid bare the deep divisions over his return to the Kremlin for six more years.
Putin’s return to the presidency will technically give him greater powers than he wielded as prime minister. The irony is that his position will be arguably weaker than at any time since he first came to power more than 12 years ago.
In part because of the heavy-handed way in which he reclaimed the presidency, Putin finds himself the leader of a changed country, where a growing portion of society is no longer willing to silently tolerate a government that denies its citizens a political voice.
How he responds to the calls for free elections and accountable government will help define his next six years in office and to a great extent determine the future of Russia itself.
The former KGB spy took his oath before nearly 2,000 guests in the Kremlin’s St Andrew Hall, the former throne room with sparkling chandeliers, gilded pillars and high Gothic vaults, before being blessed by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and taking charge of the nuclear suitcase.
Although he was Russia’s supreme leader for the past four years as prime minister, Putin took back the formal reins of power he ceded to his ally Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 after eight years as president.
He is returning with his authority weakened by months of protests that have polarized Russia and left him facing a battle to reassert himself or risk being sidelined by the powerful business and political elites whose backing is vital.
Riot police detained at least 22 protesters when a crowd of about 40 people started shouting “Russia without Putin” near two exclusive hotels 500 metres from the Kremlin on Monday, a Reuters witness said. Bystanders shouted “Shame” as they did so.
“This shows that Putin is scared of dissatisfied citizens. Although there are not so many of us, there are not so few either,” said 18-year-old student Pavel Kopilkov.
In the latest big protests on Sunday, police detained more than 400 people, including three opposition leaders, after tensions boiled over at a rally attended by about 20,000 people across the Moscow river from the Kremlin.
While Putin’s critics have tired of a political system that concentrates power in one man, many of his supporters welcome his domination of the country of more than 140 million.
“Democracy is the power of the majority. Russia is everything, the rest is nothing!” Alexander Dugin, a Kremlin-aligned nationalist, told the pro-Putin crowd.
Russia has changed
The rival rallies underlined the rifts opened by Putin’s return to the Kremlin and protests that were sparked by allegations of electoral fraud but fuelled by many Russians’ frustration that one man continues to dominate the country.
Some opposition activists plan to try to stage a protest outside the Kremlin before the inauguration ceremony.
Although the protests had lost momentum before Sunday’s rally, they have given birth to a civil society, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that is gradually chipping away at Putin’s authority.
Putin, who will be 60 in October, grew up in Soviet days and worked as a spy in communist East Germany, is under pressure to show he can adapt to the new political landscape. Few think he has changed much - if at all.
He has eased up on the choreographed macho antics that burnished his image at his peak in Russia, such as riding horseback barechested and shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer gun.
Harder to shake off will be his habit of seeking total control and learning to cope with political opponents and a middle class demanding more political freedom.
He has to quell rivalries between liberals and conservatives battling for positions in the new cabinet under Medvedev, who is swapping jobs with Putin. The outcome of the struggle could help determine how far reforms go to improve the investment climate.
The $1.9 trillion economy is in better shape than in most European countries but is vulnerable to any change in the price of oil, Russia’s main export commodity. The budget is under pressure from Putin’s lavish election spending promises.
Putin has said he wants to attract more foreign investment by improving the business climate, reduce corruption and red tape, and end Russia’s heavy dependence on energy exports. He has not spelled out how he will do this.
Putin is likely, as in the past, to use tough anti-Western rhetoric on foreign policy to drum up support if times get tough in Russia. But he has never yielded his strong influence over foreign policy as premier, so a major policy shift is unlikely.