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Starting a new term, President Vladimir Putin turned to the past for symbols of glory and promised Russians a brighter future – but kept the “tandem” intact and left the country guessing about how to get there.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.
A Tale Of Two Cities
In the space of a few hours on May 8, lawmakers in Moscow and Yerevan approved prime ministers for their countries. But while Russia and Armenia are regional neighbors with close ties, they might as well have been on different planets that day.
When Nikol Pashinian was voted in to the top office in Armenia, a crowd of thousands in Yerevan’s main square erupted in celebration, ecstatic after weeks of protests that brought down a long-entrenched leader and swept an opposition politician to power in the South Caucasus country.
In Moscow, there was no such outpouring when Dmitry Medvedev was confirmed by the State Duma to remain in the post he had held since stepping down as president to make way for Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.
That’s because while Pashinian’s election brought the promise of change, Medvedev’s confirmation – a day after Putin answered perhaps the only question connected to his transition to a new term by nominating his loyal ally to stay on shortly after his inauguration – signaled “more of the same,” as one observer put it.
For now, at least, Russia’s ruling “tandem” remains intact.
The crowds in Russia had come out three days earlier, when tens of thousands of people hit the streets to protest the prolongation of Putin’s power at nationwide rallies organized by Aleksei Navalny, the Kremlin critic who mounted a series of nationwide protests ahead of the March 18 presidential election and was barred from the ballot over a criminal conviction he says was falsified.
Unlike Pashinian, who led protesters in long marches around Yerevan in his successful quest to push the ruling-party leader from power, Navalny was quickly seized by the arms and legs and hauled away by riot police in central Moscow – his detention, and that of more than 1,000 other protesters across the country, a stark symbol of what may await Russians seeking change in Putin’s new term.
'Stale Past, Stolen Future'
There were big crowds again in Russia on May 9, when citizens marched holding portraits of relatives who fought in World War II in an event called the Immortal Regiment, a grassroots idea that has been embraced – or crassly co-opted, depending on whom you ask -- by the Russian authorities.
Putin joined the Immortal Regiment march in Moscow after addressing a military parade in which goose-stepping soldiers – as well as the nuclear-capable missiles and other heavy weapons he ordered to be reintroduced to the annual event 10 years ago – traversed Red Square.
Both parades are elements of increasingly elaborate official ceremonies that critics say Putin is using to harness a proud shared history to bolster his personal power and distract Russians from concerns about a clouded future with rousing portrayals of the past.
“They’re trying to push a stale past on a country whose future they have stolen,” was how politician Dmitry Gudkov – one of the last opposition lawmakers in the State Duma before the Kremlin tightened its control still further in 2016 elections – put it in a blog.
Putin’s Victory Day address also underscored his reliance on anti-Western rhetoric, which has become a staple of his public persona and had helped fuel deep fissures in Moscow’s ties with the European Union, the United States, and other countries.
In a thinly veiled jab at the United States, whose ties with Moscow are severely strained, Putin said that “pretentions to exceptionalism" are among the “ugly old traits” that fueled Nazi aggression and are again threatening global security.
Meet The New Boss
Putin’s inauguration, two days before the Red Square parade, was also heavy on symbolism -- but devoid of hard information about how he might go about achieving what he has strongly indicated is his main goal: improving living standards.
Six years after a ride to the Kremlin through empty streets conveyed an air of stark separation from ordinary citizens at the start of his third term, Putin seemed determined to look like a hardworking man of the people – with a touch of omnipotent tsar thrown in for good measure.
In what seemed to be a carefully choreographed performance, state TV showed him working in a Kremlin office as if it were just any other day, then standing up and making a long walk down hallways to a waiting limousine – a Russian-made one, not the Mercedes he has used in the past. The limo ferried him to the Grand Kremlin Palace, where he strode through two gilded halls named after saints – his path lined with supportive crowds -- before arriving in a third for the swearing in.
In his inauguration speech, Putin spoke again of the need for an economic and technological “breakthrough” – a word he used 11 times in a March 1 state-of-the-nation address that served as his main campaign statement in a election whose outcome was never in doubt.
This time, he used the term five times in a much shorter speech – and again offered little indication of how to achieve it.
The same goes for a long decree published by the Kremlin shortly after the ceremony. It included detailed goals for the next six years -- making Russia's economy one of the five biggest in the world, for one thing -- but few formulas for reaching them.
Anyone looking for clues in the choice of Medvedev as prime minister, or in Medvedev’s choices for his reshuffled cabinet, may have to look further.
“Nothing suggests we are in for anything but more of the same, for all the promises of a tilt to social/[development] policy,” Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and an author on Russia, wrote on Twitter. “And no sense of any Big Ideas. Welcome to Neo-Brezhnevian Putinism.”
If you count his time as prime minister, Putin has been in power longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose aversion to reform ushered in what came to be known as the Era of Stagnation.
The choice of Medvedev to stay on as prime minister also leaves one of the biggest questions of Putin’s new term wide open: What comes after?
As he was in 2008, when he tapped Medvedev to keep the Kremlin warm and shifted to the prime minister’s post for four years, Putin is barred from seeking reelection again in 2024 by a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms as president.
Many experts believe he is unlikely to cede power altogether after his current term, and there has been plenty of speculation about what he might do to keep a hand – or two – on Russia’s reins.
One day after Putin’s inauguration, the speaker of parliament in Chechnya said the regional legislature may submit a bill to the State Duma that would solve Putin’s 2024 problem in a very straightforward way: by letting presidents serve three straight terms instead of two.