MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin took the presidential oath of office for the third time Monday, swearing to uphold the Russian Constitution as his hand rested on a red-bound copy of the document in the splendid Grand Kremlin Palace. Outside, the streets were mostly empty, except for knots of would-be demonstrators who were hustled off to police vans.
As soon as he was sworn in, Putin signed a dizzying number of decrees. After a long winter of discontent, and with no sign that protests are fizzling out, he immediately launched a strongly populist program, even while police continued their muscular presence in the capital. That tension — between currying favor with the population and cracking down on it — may come to define his next six years in office.
Every Russian, Putin ordered, will have access to new housing every 15 years. By 2018 the level of satisfaction with government service will be at least 90 percent, he decreed. By that year, wages will have increased 40 to 50 percent. By this September, waiting lists for nursery schools will be reduced, on the way to elimination. Five Russian universities will join the top 100 worldwide.
Russia will also seek a predictable relationship with the United States. Russia will adhere to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty on nuclear arms, and it will push for guarantees that the U.S. missile shield in Europe will not be directed against Russia. Russia will solve the Iran problem.
Some of Putin’s decrees are doable: By June, World War II veterans and concentration-camp survivors are to receive a one-time payment of 5,000 rubles, or about $170.
Others would be dramatic — if they could be taken at face value. Putin ordered the government to prepare legislation by October that would make the court system independent. In a country where the courts are used by the government and by those who can buy access to them as weapons against political foes and business rivals, that would be a reform bordering on the revolutionary.
But even if Putin were sincere in wanting an independent judiciary — it is, after all, mandated by the Russian Constitution — the chances of that happening would still be remote. Russia’s is a peculiar government, where what Putin calls the “vertical of power” leads right to his desk, and few are prepared to challenge him. But the vast bureaucracy exists in a profound state of inertia that is generally beyond presidential control.
Putin’s attempt to defuse public anger came as roving groups of protesters formed and re-formed, mostly along the city’s inner Boulevard Ring. Police chased them one way and then another. Additional groups of pro-Putin young people, many holding placards that read “Putin loves everyone,” staked out their own ground.
Police at one point raided the Jean Jacques restaurant, a favorite gathering place for opposition organizers, and after upsetting tables and breaking dishes they led away a handful of customers. A sign soon went up on the restaurant door: “Closed for technical reasons.”
Dozens of people from both sides were detained throughout the day, although the police were generally less aggressive than they had been at a larger protest on Sunday, when a reported 450 people were taken into custody. Among them were opposition leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny, who were both fined the equivalent of $33 and released Monday afternoon, after Putin had taken office.
Monday’s ceremony began just before noon, when outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev’s heavily guarded motorcade arrived at the Kremlin. Putin arrived shortly afterward, taken by limousine from the Russian White House, headquarters of the federal government, on broad, deserted boulevards along the Moscow River, past the cupolas of St. Basil’s Cathedral onto Red Square and through the Kremlin’s Spassky Gate, opened for the occasion.
Helicopters flew overhead, and the public was kept so far away from the event and so uninformed about it that one Muscovite compared it to a visit by President Obama to Kabul.
Greeted by bayonet-carrying guards who slowly turned their heads to watch as he passed, Putin walked on a long red carpet through the grand, gilded halls: first St. George Hall, then St. Alexander Hall and finally St. Andrew Hall, throne room of the czars. Above the palace, the presidential flag fluttered in the breeze, the white, blue and red of the Russian Federation emblazoned with the czarist double-headed eagle.
Medvedev, looking wan, even diminished, spoke first. “We launched the modernization of our economy,” he said, “although not everything worked out entirely as planned.”