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Putin Takes Helm as Police Punish Moscow Dissent


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May 7, 2012

MOSCOW — In the lustrous, vaulted throne room of the czars who came before him, Vladimir V. 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 Mr. Putin the black suitcase that contains the controls to a vast nuclear arsenal.

Outside the Kremlin walls, Mr. Putin announced his return in another way. The police swept boulevards and squares, detaining anyone they saw wearing white ribbons, the symbol adopted by anti-Putin activists.

Riot police officers in camouflage 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 military draft offices.

The clampdown underlined the challenge ahead for Mr. Putin, who even as the sweeps were taking place promised to expand Russians’ rights and freedoms, as well as their direct participation in government.

Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti Russian Government, via Associated Press

Vladimir V. Putin entering St. Andrew’s Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace to take the oath of office as president on Monday.

Though he handily won the presidential election in March, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Putin’s inauguration brought violent clashes between the police and protesters — a jarring development in a city that in recent months has become accustomed to large, peaceful rallies.

A buoyant march on Sunday turned violent after a group of radical activists tried to break through a police column apparently in an effort to reach the Kremlin. Police officers in riot gear charged into the crowd trying to drag out people they thought had pelted them with smoke bombs and rocks, and beat them fiercely with nightsticks.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, responded by saying that the police reaction was too gentle and that he would have liked to see them crack down harder.

By Monday evening, more than 700 protesters had been detained, though some were released almost immediately. Officials said 29 officers were injured on 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 the authorities would hesitate to permit future marches. Nevertheless, scattered groups of protesters staged actions timed to Mr. Putin’s inauguration.

“Up until now, all was peaceful,” said Aleksei 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.”

The police seemed to arrest people all over the city.

Nikita Volkov, 28, a computer programmer, said he was walking down the street with a white ribbon on his belt when the police detained him with no explanation, gave him an official warning, videotaped him and recorded his personal information. At an evening gathering that had been publicized over the Internet, the police simply walked through the crowd, identified everyone who was not a journalist, and put them in a van.

“People are being arrested for nothing at all, simply for standing on the sidewalk,” said Oleg Orlov of Memorial, a human rights organization. “They even started detaining people who are sitting and drinking beer. I think this is to show who is boss. A new czar has come and wants to show his face, his mug, I would say.”

The chaotic scene came in contrast with the president’s inauguration, an event that has accrued grandeur since Boris N. Yeltsin’s stripped-down swearing-in.

Mr. Putin’s motorcade glided soundlessly through a city whose streets had been virtually emptied for the occasion. Once inside the Grand Kremlin Palace, Mr. Putin walked over a long red carpet through a series of packed halls, until he reached the innermost hall, which is as lustrous and intricate as a jewel box. He took his place under a huge gilded sunburst, the “All-Powerful Eye,” which was hung so it could cast its rays onto the throne of the czar.

Mr. Putin looked grave — even burdened — as he delivered a short address to a roomful of dignitaries that included a close friend, the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

“I will do my best to justify the trust of millions of our citizens,” he said. “I think it is the meaning of my whole life, and it is my duty to serve our country, serve our people, whose support inspires me and helps me solve the most complex and difficult problems.”

Mr. Putin immediately fulfilled his promise to Dmitri A. Medvedev, his predecessor, by recommending him to Parliament as Russia’s next prime minister. One of his first decrees ordered the privatization of all state-owned companies outside the natural resources and defense sectors by 2016, suggesting that he plans to pick up the banner of Mr. Medvedev’s modernization push.

The decree also asked the government to raise Russia’s ranking on a World Bank index of nations for ease of doing business to 20th by the end of the decade from 120th place today.

Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Putin clearly has his mind fixed on upgrading Russia — perhaps following in the steps of the czarist prime minister Pyotr A. Stolypin, who brooked little dissent but pushed through historic reforms.

“This is a guy who tries to do what has eluded all his predecessors,” Mr. Trenin said. “He sees himself as a guy with a mission, and a mission of historic proportions.”

That vision does not likely account for a sharp rise in dissent, or a sustained one. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, several hundred young people had formed what they called an “indefinite street party” in a central square, where the blogger Aleksei Navalny called for “guitars, harmonicas, harps, trombones and drums.” The police were standing by quietly.

Gennadi A. Zyuganov, the leader of Russia’s Communist Party, said he thought it was all just the beginning.

“The authorities need to understand that the split in society is growing, that there is stronger dissatisfaction with dishonest elections and the absence of normal dialogue,” Mr. Zyuganov told Interfax. “In this situation, radicalism is inevitable. The attempt to shut everyone’s mouths with a police baton is senseless and extremely dangerous.”

Michael Schwirtz and Andrew Kramer contributed reporting.