Putin renews oath for fifth term with Russia under firm control

Putin renews oath for fifth term with Russia under firm control
Putin renews oath for fifth term with Russia under firm control

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - MOSCOW — He could probably have walked it blindfolded.

For the fifth time Vladimir Putin took the long walk through the Grand Kremlin Palace to the St Andrew's Throne Hall. There he took the oath of office and was sworn in as Russia's president for a new six-year term.

The red carpet route may have been familiar to him. But much has changed since Putin's first inauguration ceremony in May 2000.

Back then, President Putin pledged to "preserve and develop democracy" and to "take care of Russia."

Twenty-four years on, the Kremlin leader is waging war against Ukraine; a war in which Russia has suffered heavy losses. At home, instead of developing democracy, President Putin has been curtailing it: jailing critics, removing all checks and balances on his power.

"Putin thinks of himself now as Vladimir the Great, as a Russian tsar," believes Fiona Hill, a former White House national security advisor.

"If we took ourselves back to his first two presidential terms, I think we'd have a fairly favorable assessment of Putin. He stabilized the country politically and made it solvent again. The Russian economy and system were performing better than at any other previous time in its history.

"The war in Ukraine, going back to the annexation of Crimea 10 years ago, has dramatically changed that trajectory. He's turned himself into an imperialist instead of a pragmatist."

It's remarkable to think that since Vladimir Putin first came to power, America has been through five different presidents and Britain has had seven prime ministers.

After nearly a quarter of a century running Russia, Putin has certainly made his mark. In the past, people rarely spoke of "Brezhnevism", "Gorbachevism" or "Yeltsinism".

But Putinism: that's a thing.

"We have one more -ism in our history: Stalinism," says Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Eurasia Russia Centre.

"I would say that Putinism is one more incarnation of Stalinism. He behaves like [former Soviet dictator] Stalin. His power is personalized like in Stalin's time. He prefers to use a lot of political repression. And like Stalin he is ready to keep himself in power until the physical end."

The challenge, for the West, is how to deal with an increasingly authoritarian Russian leader determined to restore what he sees as Russia's greatness; a modern-day tsar... with nuclear weapons.

"On the issue of nuclear weapons, there's an awful lot that we can do," believes Fiona Hill. "Some countries, like China, India, Japan, have been extraordinarily nervous when Putin has engaged in nuclear saber-rattling in Ukraine and have pushed back against that. We can enforce restraint on Russia by creating an international framework for pushing back on this wild and speculative talk about using nuclear weapons.

"Perhaps that is something of a model for how we can deal with Vladimir Putin, who in many respects is something of a rogue leader. We need to create a more constraining environment, less permissive for the kinds of actions that he wants to undertake."

Officially Vladimir Putin won more than 87% of the vote in the March presidential election. However, he'd faced no serious challenger in a contest widely seen as neither free not fair.

So how do Russians view the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin?

To find out I drive to the town of Kashira, 70 miles from Moscow. Here a gigantic Putin portrait, a massive mural, takes up one whole side of an apartment block.

In Kashira Big Vladimir is watching you.

"I like him," says pensioner Valentina who is selling flowers by the roadside.

"Putin has good ideas and does a lot for people. True, our pensions aren't big. But he can't fix everything in one go."

"He's had nearly 25 years," I point out.

"But we don't know who'd come next [if Putin goes]," Valentina replies.

"In Russia we're all expected to think the same way," says Victoria, who is walking past the Putin mural.

"If I say anything against Putin my husband says: 'You criticise Putin again and I'll divorce you!' He's mad about him. He says that if it wasn't for Putin life here would be as tough as in the 1990s."

When I ask another passer-by, Alexander, what he thinks of the president, he replies: "It can be dangerous now to express an opinion. No comment."

Most of the people I talk to say that they walk past Putin's portrait without even noticing it now. They're used to it.

Just like they've grown used to one man running Russia and no imminent prospect of change in the Kremlin. — BBC

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