The inauguration of Vladimir Putin as president for the third time had the air of a bad Russian hangover. On one side there was the tolling of the Kremlin bells, the parade, the gilded halls, the secret transfer of the nuclear suitcase, the blessing of the Patriarch, the ringing applause — like a slap to the face — of the courtiers, lackeys and international lobbyists; on the other side, a gloomy day after a ruthless, bloody fight.
For the first time in perhaps all Russian history, the installation of the principal leader came the day after a brutal crackdown, as the police dispersed Putin’s opponents. Only once before, in 1825, was there anything remotely similar, albeit on a far greater scale, when the revolutionary gentry arose in protest against the accession of Nicholas I.
This time the inauguration on Monday took place to the echoes of the screams of peaceful demonstrators beaten in police buses. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people had gone out to march against Putin. It turned into a massive clash with the police: 450 arrests; tear gas; scores injured, including some police officers. After the bloodless winter demonstrations, it was a sharp turn toward violence, toward a rejection of compromise by the state.
We may still end up weeping nostalgic tears for little, helpless Medvedev, for his feeble thaw …
The demonstrators demanded the cancellation of the inauguration, regarding Putin as a K.G.B. impostor. The December elections for the Duma and the presidential election in March were marked by large-scale fraud, which undermined the legitimacy of the authorities and triggered unprecedented protests.
The authorities were at first frightened, but then saw the meekness of the boundless hinterlands and calmed down, moving ahead to the inauguration. Yet Putin will have to rule from the Kremlin a Moscow that did not give him even half its votes. How comfortable will he be surrounded by the hostility of the capital? A recent suggestion by one of his ministers to move the capital to somewhere in Siberia sounded like a joke, but a loyal one.
Putin, who last winter cursed the demonstrators with foul words, is not likely to talk with a street opposition consisting of the most modern, European-minded people in Russia. By his nature a leader not given to dialogue, he will instead seek to create the appearance of a two-party system (the conservative United Russia, now headed by Dmitri Medvedev, and perhaps the liberal party being developed with the Kremlin’s approval by the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov). In general, Putin’s third reign will be built on appearance: The appearance of modernization, the appearance of cooperation with the West, the appearance of resolving major social problems. The reality will be a policy of isolation from the West under a Eurasian concept of the future of Russia, which never before saw any hope in the East.
The pompous, royal inauguration spoke of a strengthening of a class system, in which the role of nobility is played by corrupt bureaucrats and the role of serfs by everyone else. The ceremony was broadcast on all the main television channels, and showed a stern-looking Putin who likes power and is not likely to be limited to a six-year term. Otherwise, he might have to swap places not with the loyal Medvedev, but with his enemy Khodorkovsky, since the bloodied opposition now demands that Putin be brought to justice.
For now Putin will cope with the opposition. It may be broad, but it is not the whole people, and it is fragmented. If it wants to survive and become an influential force, the opposition must create a powerful union, something like Poland’s Solidarity.
In contrast to the winter demonstrations, Sunday’s was led by the most radical opposition leaders, who hoped to turn it into an Orange Revolution-like protest. The authorities, who gave their permission for the demonstration, saw through the deception and unleashed special police units, resembling big black cockroaches.
Will Putin pardon the new Decembrists or will he order a series of show trials? We can only hope that the czar will not turn savage. But the public peace for which Putin’s supporters are appealing in the name of Great Russia can only end up as a fatal stagnation.
How long Russia can survive in a state of stagnation between furiously developing China and Europe will be decided by the price of oil and the patience of provincial Russia, largely indifferent to everything and trusting of nothing. For now, the country, divided into those who recognize, half-recognize and do not recognize the new President Putin, already resembles a limping invalid.
Victor Erofeyev is a Russian writer and television host. This article was translated from the Russian by the IHT.