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Putin emphasizes Russia’s domestic challenges as he launches another, and perhaps final, term

After being sworn in for another six years as Russia’s president May 7, Vladimir Putin said it was his duty to ensure the country’s “present and future.” (Video: Reuters)
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MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin, already the longest-serving leader of Russia since Stalin, launched his fourth presidential term Monday by promising to focus on improving Russians’ lives at home but without backing down in his confrontation with the West.

In a brief inaugural address to thousands of invited guests at the Kremlin, Putin emphasized the work he has to do at home, nodding to the long-term challenges Russia faces with a stagnant economy and a declining birth rate. He said Russia needs to expand freedoms for entrepreneurs and scientists, invest in regional development, and improve education and health care. A particular focus on “traditional family values,” he said, would ensure as many births as possible. 

“Russia is a strong, active and influential participant in international life,” Putin said. “But now, we must use all the opportunities available to us primarily to address the most vital domestic development objectives.”

Like many of Putin’s events, Monday’s inauguration was meticulously choreographed for a television audience. 

Before his speech, the 65-year-old leader arose from his office desk, donned a suit jacket and walked, for considerable time and with signature swagger, down the red-lined Kremlin halls to a Russian-made limousine, state television showed. Putin then took the oath of office in the resplendent pink-marble Andreyevsky Hall, the throne room of Russia’s czars in the Grand Kremlin Palace. The lavish ceremony was full of pomp and splendor, featuring cavalry in brocaded livery and simultaneous cannon fire.  

In an apparent bid to show the breadth of Putin’s popularity, activists and volunteers from his reelection campaign joined official dignitaries among the 6,000 guests. Also attending was American action star Steven Seagal, whom Putin presented with a Russian passport in 2016, and the leather-clad leader of a pro-Kremlin motorcycle club who is known as “the Surgeon.”

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder also came, prominently standing in the front row beside Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Dmitry Medvedev, who served as prime minister in Putin’s last term and has been nominated for a new term. 

“The purpose of my life will be, as before, service to the people, to our fatherland,” Putin said after he swore on Russia’s constitution.

Under the constitution, this six-year term is supposed to be Putin’s last, but speculation has mounted in Moscow that he will seek to hold on to power in some way after 2024, perhaps by taking on a new, leader-of-the-nation role. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced March 1 Russia had successfully tested new nuclear-powered weapons that could avoid any missile defense systems. (Video: Reuters)

For now, Putin’s dominance of Russia’s political system seems ironclad. His popularity surged after he annexed the territory of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and many Russians have accepted his call to unite around the Kremlin amid the confrontation with the West. To his supporters, Western sanctions and accusations of Putin’s complicity in U.S. election interference or Olympic doping are simply means of keeping their country down. 

In his patriotic inauguration speech, Putin focused entirely on Russia, but he hinted at the standoff with the West when he said: “The country’s security and defense capabilities are reliably ensured. We will continue giving these issues the constant attention they need.” 

Tens of thousands protest Putin’s new term; 1,600 arrested

And while Putin’s foreign policy legacy after nearly two decades in power reflects an expansion of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions that many Russians support, his accomplishments at home are less clear-cut. Putin benefited from rising oil prices early in his tenure, but since 2008, Russia’s stagnant economy has grown at an average of just over 1 percent a year. 

Showcasing Russia’s manufacturing potential, Putin swapped his armored Mercedes-Benz for a domestically made Cortege on Monday. Officials and analysts took to Russian state television to praise the car, hailing the automobile’s entrance on the market as an achievement for the Russian people. 

In his state-of-the-nation address in March, Putin promised to halve the poverty rate over the next six years and to double government spending on roads, health care and regional development.

Whether he intends significant economic reform could become clearer as he forms his government in the coming weeks. The relatively liberal former finance minister Alexei Kudrin could rejoin the government, analysts say, but hard-liners within the Kremlin who are prepared to keep up the confrontation with the West are unlikely to lose their influence. 

Until now, Putin’s promises to improve Russians’ lives at home have been overshadowed by conflict with the West — notably including nuclear saber-rattling and the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England, for which Britain blames the Kremlin.

There are some signs that Russians are growing impatient with slow economic growth and public corruption. Protests after a Siberian mall fire that killed more than 60 led to the resignation of a regional governor in April. Anti-Putin rallies organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny across the vast country Saturday brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets, and more than 1,600 of them were arrested. 

As the guests filed out of the Kremlin after Monday’s ceremony, there was little talk of rapprochement with the West. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Western countries should “normalize their attitude toward Russia.” The biker leader known as “the Surgeon,” Alexander Zaldostanov, said he expected the pressure on Russia to increase, prompting Russians to respond by uniting even more around their leader.

“Our president will collect everyone in his fist,” Zaldostanov said in an interview, after noting that the Kremlin celebration marked the first time he had worn a white shirt. “I’m ready not to eat enough, not to sleep enough — but you can’t put me down.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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