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There was something grimly fitting about Vladimir Putin’s swearing-in ceremony this Monday for a new six-year term. While Russia’s president-elect paid tribute to “democracy” and civil society, baton-wielding riot police pummeled protestors and rounded up opposition activists on Moscow’s streets.
The rift between rhetoric and reality aptly sums up the legacy of Putin’s rule, which has seen a rapid erosion of democratic government and the rule of law in Russia. Putin’s third term promises more of the same. Even before Putin’s inauguration ceremony began on Monday, Russian police beat up and arrested over 400 people taking part in anti-government demonstrations. Some of the younger demonstrators were reportedly handed military draft notices upon their arrest.
Police continued the crackdown on Monday, arresting hundreds and clearing the main thoroughfares completely so that Putin’s motorcade could proceed. One Russian blogger posted images of totally deserted streets, with the sarcastic caption: “Joyous crowds of Muscovites greet the new cleanly elected president!” Dissent is alive and well in Russia, as the 20,000-strong weekend demonstrations suggest, but Putin’s idea of democracy means that those who disagree with the government are neither heard nor seen.
Emptied streets cannot hide the fact that Putin’s new term has not been welcomed, particularly in major urban hubs like Moscow. The prospect of Putin resuming the office that he never really surrendered has proved a galvanizing force in Russia over the past year, awaking a previously dormant middle class, and sparking the largest street protests in Russia since the dying days of the Soviet Union. Not powerful enough to prevent Putin’s reelection – largely a formality in Russia’s fraud-plagued elections – the protests have revealed what the state-run media has long managed to suppress: widespread distrust of the political system and popular contempt for Putin.
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