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Putin starts 4th term with coronation-style ceremony

Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, has ruled Russia as prime minister or president for more than 18 years.
Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, has ruled Russia as prime minister or president for more than 18 years.(ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP/Getty Images/Pool)

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin took the oath of office Monday for a fourth term as Russia’s president, in a ceremony staged in a gilded Kremlin hall once used to crown czars and replete with pageantry, highlighting his vast accumulation of authority after nearly two decades in power.

Putin, a former KGB agent, has ruled Russia as prime minister or president for more than 18 years, and in that time has crafted an image as a steely nerved leader and the man best qualified to rebuild his country after the end of the Soviet Union.

For Putin’s third and now fourth spells as president, the term was extended to six years from four.

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In a theatrical touch, Monday’s televised ceremony began with Putin sitting at his desk in the Kremlin, suit jacket looped over his chair, as if hard at work until moments before the ceremony. A phone rang, letting him know it was time for his fourth term; he donned his jacket and walked alone through the red-carpeted Kremlin corridors and into a hall packed with about 6,000 invited, cheering guests.

In a short speech, Putin suggested his focus had now turned to domestic matters and improving Russia’s economy for the “well-being of every family,” though there were no words of reconciliation in the country’s tense relations with the West.

“The country’s security and defense capabilities are reliably ensured,” Putin told the audience of government ministers, lawmakers, religious leaders, and celebrities.

“Now we will use all the possibilities we have first of all for the resolution of internal, and most essential, tasks of development,” he said. “A new quality of life, well-being, security and health for the people, that is what is important today.”

Putin won reelection in March with nearly 77 percent of the vote, the largest margin for any post-Soviet leader. It was a result that his backers said showed widespread support, but one his critics dismissed as illustrating the stifling of any real opposition.

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While lower key than Putin’s inauguration in 2012, the ceremony’s regal themes nevertheless gave it the air of a coronation. The honor guard and flag bearers wore uniforms with tall military caps, of a style dating from Russia’s war with Napoleon in 1812.

The ceremony itself unfolded in a Kremlin hall used to crown three czars — Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II — as well as previous presidential inaugurations. And later, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave Putin an 18th-century icon while blessing him for his new term.

Abroad, Putin has sought to restore Russia’s sway in world affairs. During his third term as president, he intervened militarily in Ukraine and Syria, putting him at loggerheads with the West. And, according to US intelligence agencies, he directed Russia to meddle in the 2016 presidential election to aid Donald Trump.

At home, he has presided over the restitution to power of the security agency he once served, with many high officials and corporate executives now former officers like Putin. But the domestic economy lagged, only recently emerging from a painful recession.

He has also clamped down on critics, arresting scores of opposition activists and restricting the media.

European election observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wrote that his recent reelection, “took place in an overly controlled legal and political environment marked by continued pressure on critical voices.”

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Underscoring that point, two days before the inauguration, police arrested about 1,600 people at protest actions called “He is not our czar.” Demonstrators wore paper crowns to mock Putin’s long rule, now running longer than any Russian leader since Stalin.

The arrests added images of swinging nightsticks and shoving matches with the police to the inaugural events. The repression, Vedomosti, a business newspaper, wrote, risked “spoiling the upcoming inauguration more even than the protest.”

The violence included a throwback to an earlier era of crowd-control tactics in Russia. Men wearing Cossack uniforms and carrying a type of traditional leather whip known as a nagaika had mingled in the crowd, occasionally lashing out.

The Echo of Moscow radio station reported Monday that the Cossack group had won municipal contracts to train for and help with crowd control, though it remained unclear whether they acted in an official capacity Saturday.

Putin signed decrees Monday outlining his goals, such as reducing poverty and, by the end of his six-year term, raising Russian life expectancy to 78 years, from 72 now. He signaled political continuity by nominating a longtime ally, Dmitry Medvedev, as prime minister.

Whether Putin shifts gears on economic policy hinges on the possible appointment of a liberal economist, Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister, to a new post as economic adviser, analysts said.

Kremlin hard-liners oppose Kudrin for advocating an easing of tensions with the West, as well as efforts to revive trade. Kudrin has also argued for raising taxes and the retirement age to shore up the budget.

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Putin first became president on Dec. 31, 1999, when Boris Yeltsin, ailing from heart troubles, resigned. Putin was then elected in 2000 and served twice, the constitutional limit for successive terms. He then became prime minister for one term, before returning to the presidency in 2012.

While not short on pomp, the ceremony Monday was less elaborate than his inauguration in 2012. In 2012, police cordoned off much of the city center to allow Putin’s motorcade to glide through quiet streets toward the Kremlin.

This year, he stayed within the Kremlin grounds. He walked from his office to a motorcade that drove from one Kremlin building to another, escorted by motorcycles.