Russian President Vladimir Putin works in his cabinet before an inauguration ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 7, 2018. (Sputnik/Reuters)
MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin, already the longest serving leader of Russia since Stalin, launched a fourth presidential term on Monday in which he has promised to improve Russian lives at home while showing no sign of backing down in his confrontation with the West.
Russian state television showed the 65-year-old leader arise from his office, don a suit jacket and walk down the long redlined Kremlin halls to a waiting car. In a lavish ceremony of pomp and splendor, Putin then took the oath of office in the resplendent pink marble Andreyevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, the throne room of Russia’s czars.
In an apparent bid to show the breadth of Putin’s popularity, activists and volunteers from Putin’s reelection campaign joined official dignitaries among about 6,000 guests. So did 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.”
The six-year term is supposed to be Putin’s last under the constitution. But speculation has mounted in Moscow that Putin will seek to hold on to power in some way after 2024, perhaps by taking on a new, leader-of-the-nation role.
For now, Putin’s dominance of the nation’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.
But while Putin’s foreign-policy legacy after nearly two decades in power reflects a rise in 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.
Thanking his outgoing ministers for their service on Sunday evening, he described the government’s “key task” for the coming years as delivering an “assured increase in citizens’ real incomes.”
In his state-of-the-nation address in March, Putin’s promised to halve the poverty rate over the next six years and to double government spending on roads, health care and regional development.
“We don’t have the right to allow the stability we have attained to lead to complacency,” Putin said then.
Whether Putin intends significant economic reform could become clearer as he forms his government in the coming weeks. Relatively liberal former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, could rejoin the government, analysts say, but hard liners within the Kremlin prepared to keep up the confrontation with the West are unlikely to lose their influence.
For now, however, Putin’s promises to improve Russian lives of home have been overshadowed by conflict with the West — with everything from nuclear saber rattling to 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 in the aftermath of a Siberian mall fire that killed 60 led to the resignation of a regional governor in April. Anti-Putin rallies organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny across the vast country on Sunday brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets, and more than 1,500 of them were arrested.
Signaling that he has no plans to tone down his confrontational approach, Putin on Sunday lauded his government’s actions over the last six-year term. He described it as a time full of “new challenges and unusual events.”
“We needed toughness and consistency, the readiness to take responsibility and to realize the decisions made on the basis of modern approaches,” Putin said.