Inauguration in a Ghost Town

At about 11:40 this morning, Vladimir Putin left his office in Moscow’s White House, the seat of the Russian prime minister, for the last time. Unaccompanied, he walked down a long marble staircase covered by a dark runner with gold embroidery. His friends and associates were all waiting for him in the gilded halls of the Great Kremlin Palace, less than two miles away.

Putin’s armored Mercedes stretch limousine was standing outside. Escorted by two boxy black Mercedes jeeps and 10 motorcycle policemen in perfect formation, the president-elect’s limo sped up Novy Arbat, the western thoroughfare leading to the Kremlin.

On March 10, thousands of Muscovites had gathered on this street to protest Putin’s election to a third term as president, which he had achieved by using a loophole in the constitution, which prohibits three consecutive terms.

Putin may have won 64 percent of the vote according to official results, but there were no cheering crowds lining Novy Arbat today. In fact, the normally bustling shopping street was devoid of cars and pedestrians as Putin made his solitary approach to the Kremlin. Leafy Gogolevsky Boulevard, in my old neighborhood, was likewise abandoned, as was the Kremlin Embankment.

Ordinary citizens are unpredictable. An opposition activist might try to cause a scene by unfurling a banner, which would then be broadcast live around the world. Nothing should be left to chance. Ordinary citizens had their day yesterday, when they shouted anti-Putin slogans and clashed with police. Today was Putin’s day. Inauguration day.

Russian state television had cameras on the ground, in the air and even inside the Kremlin’s clock tower to document the culmination of four years of political intrigue. Before Putin began his drive through a deserted city center, Rossia 24, the government’s all-news satellite channel, swooped in through an open window of the Great Kremlin Palace to show soldiers of the Presidential Regiment goose-stepping past 3,000 guests, including Putin’s old friends Silvio Berlusconi and Gerhard Schroeder. Next to the shiny white stage in St. Andrew’s Hall stood Russia’s three First Ladies: Naina Yeltsina, Svetlana Medvedeva, and Lyudmila Putina. Other familiar, though not entirely expected, faces were Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire who had run as an independent presidential candidate, and Mikhail Gorbachev, a frequent Putin critic.

When Putin arrived at the Kremlin, he was received by Major General Oleg Galkin, the towering commander of the Presidential Regiment. Then the Kremlin chimes struck twelve noon – Rossia 24 zoomed in on the whirring cogs and gears of the clockwork in the Spasskaya Tower – and Dmitry Medvedev’s time as president was up. (One can only hope that as prime minister, he won’t be allowed to hold any more nonsensical speeches explaining that “freedom is better than non-freedom” or that badminton is a fun sport.)

If Medvedev bathed in the pomp of his office, Putin acted like it was all old hat. He rattled off the oath of office partially by memory, and after a choir sang the national anthem, he produced his inaugural speech from his suit pocket and placed it on the lectern.

Putin spoke for five minutes. The meaning of his whole life has been to serve the Russian people, he said. Putin thanked Medvedev for providing “continuity and sustainability,” only to announce that “a new phase of national development” was beginning today.

Putin didn’t make even an oblique reference to the hundreds of anti-government protesters who had been arrested in yesterday’s demonstration. Instead, he vaguely called for unity and patriotism.

“We want to and will live in a democratic country,” Putin said. “We want to and will live in a successful Russia, which is respected in the world as a reliable, open, honest and predictable partner.”

Putin strode off purposefully along a red carpet, while his inner circle politely clapped. When he left St. Andrew’s Hall, passed through St. Alexander’s Hall and finally reached St. George’s Hall, the status of the guests had dropped off considerably. Middle-aged dames and elderly gents thrust their hands over the rope barrier at Putin, who was obliged to press some flesh. Then he disappeared to collect the suitcase with Russia’s nuclear launch codes from Medvedev.

I doubt anybody in Moscow’s protest movement sincerely believed that peaceful demonstrations could somehow stop Putin from reassuming the presidency today. But just because Putin has managed to check off the boxes “nomination,” “election” and “inauguration,” doesn’t mean that he’s home free.

Putin is not a loved president, he’s a default president. A majority of Russian voters gave Putin a third term for no other reason than that they saw no alternative to him – not because they actively support him. That’s why Putin’s campaign found it impossible to organize anything even resembling a modern political rally.

As yesterday’s protest in Moscow showed, tens of thousands of people are still prepared to take to the streets, and the more radical elements are starting to lose patience. In such a tense atmosphere, almost anything – an egregious incident of police brutality or a traffic accident involving a government official – could spark the wrath of Muscovites.

As I have argued in this blog and elsewhere, Putin will struggle to rule Russia without the support of Moscow. On most days it’s not a ghost town.

(Disclosure: At present, Lucian is mentally but not physically in Moscow.)

Leave a Reply