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Putin Starts New Term After Protests, Amid Tension With West


Putin Sworn In For Fourth Term As President
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Vladimir Putin has been sworn in to a new six-year term as Russian president, vowing to "serve the people" and improve their lives while protecting what he called a country of "great victories and feats."

Putin took the oath of office in a midday ceremony in an ornate Kremlin hall on May 7, with his right hand on a red-bound copy of the Russian Constitution.

"As head of state, I will do everything in my power to increase the might, prosperity, and glory of Russia," Putin said in a speech, telling Russians, "The goal of my life and work will be, as before, to serve the people and our fatherland."

A Kremlin statement shortly after the ceremony said Putin nominated Dmitry Medvedev to stay on as prime minister, signaling continuity despite his repeated calls for an economic "breakthrough."

Putin, 65, has president or prime minister since 1999 and just finished the term that he began in 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister.

In his address after taking the oath, Putin called for a "breakthrough" that would bolster the Russian economy and improve living standards -- echoing exhortations he made in a March 1 state-of-the-nation speech during his reelection campaign.

Focusing mainly on domestic issues, Putin urged Russians to unite to face down "new challenges." He said Russia will continue to strengthen its military capability.

After the address, he descended from the podium and greeted members of the audience, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

He then reviewed an honor guard and spoke to young people lined up in a Kremlin square, taking photographs with a few. Putin also attended a prayer service in which Kirill asked God to grant him the "strength and wisdom" to rule in peace and prosperity.

Putin takes the oath of office on a copy of the Russian Constitution.
Putin takes the oath of office on a copy of the Russian Constitution.

Putin was reelected by a landslide on March 18, in a vote that has called a demonstration of public trust but critics say was marred by fraud and what international observers said was the lack of a genuine choice.

The inauguration comes two days after police detained some 1,600 people, including opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, at protests in dozens of cities where demonstrators came out to voice dismay at Putin's long rule and the prospect of six more years.

U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Putin on being sworn in for his fourth term, the White House said on May 7, while highlighting the importance of freedom of assembly after the mass arrests of May 5.

"The president congratulates him and looks forward to a time when we can hopefully have a good relationship with Russia," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

"However, the United States believes that everyone has a right to be heard and assemble peacefully," Sanders said, two days after the U.S. State Department condemned the arrests.

"Leaders who are secure in their own legitimacy don't arrest their peaceful opponents for protesting," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Twitter.

The police reaction to the protests was also criticized by the European Union, which said it threatened "the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and assembly" in Russia.

The approach to the May 7 ceremony was less elaborate than in 2012, when opponents said his motorcade rode down deserted central streets while protesters were kept away underscored a gulf between Putin and the people.

This time state TV showed Putin, in a dark suit, walking out of his office in one Kremlin building and riding in a limousine to the Grand Kremlin Palace nearby for the ceremony.

Inside, large crowds of guests lined his path along a red carpet to the podium, and the event appeared carefully designed to portray Putin as a hardworking man of the people rather than a haughty tsar.

Putin will be barred from seeking reelection in 2024 because the constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms.

Putin (center) is sworn as Russian president during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 7.
Putin (center) is sworn as Russian president during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 7.

Most of the protesters detained on May 5 have been released and some face court hearings, including Navalny, who was carried away by police and was one of more than 700 people detained in Moscow alone.

In one of the first rulings in connection with the protests, a St. Petersburg court on May 7 ordered a man who is accused of knocking out a police officer's tooth at a rally in Putin's hometown jailed for two months pending trial on a charge of violence against state authorities. Mikhail Tsakunov, who is 25 and could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if tried and convicted, denies he attacked the officer.

The crackdown set a stark tone for Putin’s new term, which begins as Moscow remains locked in a geopolitical standoff with the West over a range of issues, including Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine, alleged meddling in U.S. elections, and support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

At home, Putin has spelled out a raft of goals for his new term, including slashing Russia’s poverty rate, modernizing infrastructure, boosting health care and life-expectancy, and a technological drive to transform the economy and improve living standards.

In a long decree issued hours after the inauguration ceremony, Putin set out scores of economic, social, and developmental goals for his new term and beyond. Those with targets of 2024 include cutting the poverty rate in half, improving housing for 5 million families every year, raising the average life expectancy to 78 years, and making Russia's economy one of five biggest in the world by GDP -- up from 12th place in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Whether he will be able to implement these ambitious plans remains to be seen. A Bloomberg analysis found that Putin largely fell short of the numerous pledges he delivered at the beginning of his third term in 2012.

Under the constitution, the start of a new presidential term triggered the resignation of Medvedev and his government.

In line with expectations, Putin nominated Medvedev to remain in the post, and lawmakers are expected to approve the choice on May 8.

Medvedev, 52, appears certain to be approved by the State Duma, which is dominated by the ruling United Russia party. Medvedev is chairman of the party.

The prime minister is the No. 2 official in the Russian hierarchy, holding responsibility for the economy and answering to the president.

Medvedev was Putin's chief of staff in 2003-05 and first deputy prime minister in 2005-08.

Medvedev was steered into the presidency in 2008 by Putin, who had reached his constitutional limit of two consecutive terms. They then switched places in 2012, with Putin returning to presidency while his loyal ally became prime minister -- a move that led to large street protests by mostly liberal, city-dwelling Russians eager for change.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had signaled a day earlier that Putin was likely to nominate Medvedev, saying that Putin told cabinet members that his government had "worked well" at a difficult time "thanks...to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev."

WATCH: A straw poll on the streets of Moscow found mixed views of Putin as he began his fourth term as Russian president.

Russians Divided On Putin As He Enters Fourth Term
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Russia is still battling with the impact of Western sanctions over its role in the Ukraine conflict and alleged interference in U.S. politics, though its economy emerged from a two-year recession in 2017 due in part to recovering oil prices.

"All indications are that [Russia's] economic performance will be mediocre at best in the coming years. A context of 'neostagnation’ is anticipated,” Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia, wrote in a recent report for the think tank Chatham House.

Putin's 2012 inauguration came one day after clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Moscow led to the arrest and ultimate prosecution of more than 20 opposition activists protesting his return to the Kremlin in the "castling" with Medvedev.

Putin became acting president on the last day of 1999 and -- if his stint as prime minister in 2008-2012 is counted -- is Moscow's longest-ruling leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

A longtime KGB officer in the Soviet era, Putin became prime minister in August 1999, was named acting president by Boris Yeltsin on the last day of the year, and won the presidential election in March 2000.

Putin and his allies say he brought stability to Russia in the wake of an economic crisis in the late 1990s and two devastating wars against separatists in the Chechnya region from 1994 to the early 2000s.

Backers also say that with actions such as the military intervention in Syria, where Russia has given Assad crucial backing in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, Putin has restored the global clout Moscow lost when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.

Critics say he has rolled back the advances in democracy and human rights that were made in Russia after the Soviet collapse. Detractors also say that he has returned to Soviet-style methods of stifling dissent and has needlessly stoked confrontation with Washington and the West.

If his time as prime minister is counted, Putin is Moscow's longest-ruling leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He was reelected in the March 18 vote with 76.69 percent of ballots cast, according to official results -- more than he received in 2000, 2004, and 2012, and the highest percentage secured by any post-Soviet Russian leader.

While there were reports of ballot-stuffing and other irregularities in the election -- including the possible addition of 10 million faked votes -- they are not seen as having tipped the poll in Putin's favor. His opponents say the Kremlin’s tight control over the political landscape and a servile state-media machine ensured his victory before a single ballot was cast, and international observers said voters were not given a genuine choice.

Russians' trust in Putin has dipped since the election, however, according to state pollster VTsIOM.

It fell from a high of 58.9 percent on January 21 to 47.1 percent on April 22, according to the pollster.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, AP, Bloomberg, Interfax, Gazeta.ru, Dozhd TV, TASS, and The Moscow Times
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