Putin returns to Kremlin under protest shadow
MOSCOW - Agence France- Presse
Riot police try to remove barricades from participants of a "march of the million" opposition protest in central Moscow . REUTERS PhotoVladimir Putin takes office today as Russian president for a historic third term in a glittering Kremlin ceremony shadowed by bloody clashes between police and the protest movement against his rule.
Putin will at 0800 GMT officially take over from outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev after swearing in his oath to protect the rights of Russian citizens and defend the country's integrity.
In the fifth Russian presidential inauguration since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kremlin bells will chime, over 5,000 bottles of Russian sparkling wine will be served and the presidential guard will don Tsarist-era uniforms.
But the eve of the ceremony saw the worst clashes yet between police and anti-Putin protestors when a mass opposition demonstration descended into chaos and security forces wielded their batons to arrest hundreds of people.
Police said that 436 people were detained at Sunday's protest, including the anti-Putin leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov who now face the prospect of spending at least the next two weeks in jail.
The authorities said that 20 police were wounded by stones and glass thrown by the protestors, who in turn accused the authorities of responding with heavy hand-handed tactics to violently disperse the protest.
The Interfax news agency quoted medical sources as saying that 47 protestors had required medical treatment while opposition websites said that up to 650 demonstrators had been arrested.
The bitter clashes were in stark contrast to the winter's mass anti-Putin protests which smashed the taboo against big opposition rallies in Russia but also took place peacefully without any arrests.
A vast security blanket was thrown over Moscow Monday, with police already in the early morning fencing-off squares in the city centre that could potentially be used as protest venues.
Protest leaders bickered over their future strategy with supporters of the ultra-left wing Udaltsov calling for civil disobedience but liberals expressing disgust over the radical opposition's provocative behaviour.
"The opposition needs to sober up a bit and understand what world it is living in," the leader of the liberal Yabloko party Sergei Mitrokhin told Kommersant FM radio.
In the lavish inauguration ceremony that aims to remind the world of post-Soviet Russia's status as a great global power, Putin will swear to "respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the people and citizens" Yet activists accuse Putin of sacrificing rights in the pursuit of stability during 12 years of domination over Russia and lacking legitimacy after his knockout March 4 election victory was marred by claims of fraud.
Medvedev has served as president since 2008 as Putin was constitutionally barred from serving more than two consecutive terms, having become head of state in 2000 following the resignation of Boris Yeltsin.
Putin remained in full charge as he instead took the job of prime minister. Yet analysts say he now faces the unprecedented challenge of a six year term at a time when Russian society is changing at speed.
Foreign heads of state are not expected at the inauguration, although the lifenews.ru website reported that former political players such as Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a friend of Putin, and California ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would attend.
"The inauguration of the president must feel traditional and not change every time there is a new head of state," the head of the Kremlin's management department Vladimir Kozhin told RIA Novosti.
"Traditions must be created and preserved," he added.
Medvedev, meanwhile, is expected to take on Putin's old job as prime minister but remain largely in the shadows after his presidency failed to deliver initial promises of political and economic modernisation.