Kremlin dissenters detained ahead of Putin inauguration

MOSCOW • Mr Vladimir Putin will today be inaugurated for his fourth Kremlin term under the shadow of hugely strained ties with the West and a crackdown on the opposition, with Alexei Navalny and hundreds more detained at the weekend.

Opposition leader Navalny was held along with nearly 1,600 of his supporters on Saturday during rallies against Mr Putin as police and paramilitary activists used force to break up demonstrations in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Mr Putin, who has ruled Russia for 18 years and used his last presidential term to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and launch a military campaign in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad the following year, has promised to improve living standards at home during his next Kremlin stint.

But the 65-year-old has remained silent on the issue of his succession – despite this being an inevitable concern as the Constitution bars him from running again when his fourth term ends in 2024.

Mr Putin has struggled to revive an economy that crashed after Moscow was hit with Western sanctions over its annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by a fall in global oil prices in 2016. Despite this, his victory in the March election was never in question and the prospect of an inauguration in the Kremlin‘s gilded Andreyevsky Hall has generated little excitement.

Ms Tatyana Stanovaya, a Paris-based analyst for the Centre of Political Technologies in Moscow, said that with the crackdown on the opposition, the Kremlin wanted to show it would brook no dissent under Mr Putin‘s new term. “The Kremlin wants to draw a red line which cannot be crossed,” she said.

Observers expressed fears that the detentions could lead to a new wave of criminal cases after similar rallies in 2012 against Mr Putin‘s return to the Kremlin from the post of prime minister led to a huge crackdown on the protest movement.

NEW TASK AT HAND

Russia hasn‘t been so isolated since the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Now (Mr Putin‘s) task isn‘t to bring any new lands to Russia, but to force the world to consider Russia‘s interests and accept its previous conquests.

MR DMITRY ORESHKIN, an independent political analyst, saying the President‘s approach to the international community would have to shift over the next term.

In May 2012, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest his inauguration for a third Kremlin term, with rallies descending into clashes with police.

Criminal charges were brought against around 30 demonstrators and many of them were sentenced to prison terms of between 21/2 years and 41/2 years.

A major crackdown on dissent ensued, with authorities introducing a raft of measures to bolster control over the Internet, which remains the only space where the opposition can freely organise.

In a sign this trend would continue into Mr Putin‘s fourth term, last month the state telecoms watchdog tried to block popular messaging app Telegram and said Facebook could be next.

Some political analysts said Moscow‘s attitude towards the West – which has only hardened over the crises in Ukraine and Syria, as well as accusations of spy poisoning in Britain and election meddling in the US – was also unlikely to change under Putin 4.0.

But others, like independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, said the President‘s approach to the international community would have to shift over the next term.

“Russia hasn‘t been so isolated since the Soviet war in Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the 1979-1989 conflict. “Now his task isn‘t to bring any new lands to Russia, but to force the world to consider Russia‘s interests and accept its previous conquests.”

Reports that Mr Alexei Kudrin – a liberal former finance minister who is respected abroad – could return to the Kremlin in a reshuffle, suggest the President could be seeking a less confrontational approach.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE