Amid protests, Vladimir Putin returns to presidency in Russia
MOSCOW — In the lustrous, vaulted throne room of the czars who came before him, Vladimir Putin on Monday reclaimed the Russian presidency. A 30-gun salute cracked over the eerie quiet of the city, and Russia’s defense minister returned to Putin the black suitcase that contains the controls to a vast nuclear arsenal.
Outside the Kremlin walls, Putin announced his return in another way. Police swept boulevards and squares detaining anyone they saw wearing white ribbons, the symbol adopted by anti-Putin activists. Camouflaged riot police charged into cafes and restaurants in search of protesters, in one spot sending cups and glasses flying. Once in police custody, scores of young men were referred to draft offices.
The clampdown underlined the challenge ahead of Putin, who even as the sweeps were taking place promised to expand Russians’ rights and freedoms, as well as their direct participation in government. Though he handily won presidential elections in March, Putin, 59, faces a rising generation with no recollection of the Soviet system that shaped his worldview. They do not fear the state, and they are apparently prepared to fight for power from below, said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“He is caught in the understanding that he is the savior of Russia, that everything depends on him,” Rahr said. “He sees himself as a historical figure already, a man who prevented the collapse of the country. The problem is, now he has to meet the real demands of people who are 30 years younger than him.”
The eve of Putin’s inauguration brought violent clashes between police and protesters — a jarring development in a city that in recent months has become accustomed to large, peaceful rallies.
A buoyant march Sunday turned violent after a column of radical activists tried to break through a police column in an apparent effort to reach the Kremlin. Police officers in riot gear charged into the crowd trying to drag out people who had pelted them with smoke bombs and rocks, and beating some with nightsticks. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, responded by saying that the police reaction was too gentle, and he would have liked to see them crack down harder.
By Monday evening, more than 700 protesters had been detained, though many were released almost immediately. Officials said 29 officers were injured Sunday, and state-controlled television — the primary source of information for most of the country — featured sympathetic interviews with uniformed officers lying on beds in a hospital ward.
Officials made it clear that authorities would hesitate to sanction future marches.
Nevertheless, scattered groups of protesters staged actions timed to Putin’s inauguration.
“Up until now, all was peaceful,” said Alexei Yeryomin, 40, an art director for a magazine. “But the first blood has been spilled, and knowing the Russian character, the situation will now be unpredictable.”