MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin took the oath of office Monday for a fourth term as Russia’s president, in a ceremony staged in a gilded Kremlin hall and replete with pageantry that highlighted his vast accumulation of authority after nearly two decades in power.
In a theatrical touch, a televised ceremony began Monday with Putin sitting at his desk in the Kremlin, suit jacket looped over his chair, as if hard at work until moments before the ceremony. A phone rang, letting him know it was time for his fourth term; he donned his jacked and walked alone through the red-carpeted Kremlin corridors and into a hall packed with about 6,000 invited, cheering guests.
In a short speech, Putin suggested his focus had now turned to domestic matters and improving Russia’s economy for the “well-being of every family,” though there were no words of reconciliation in the country’s tense relations with the West.
“The security and defense capabilities of the country are reliably supported,” Putin told the audience of government ministers, lawmakers, religious leaders and celebrities.
“Now we will use all the possibilities we have first of all for the resolution of internal, and most essential, tasks of development,” he said. “A new quality of life, well-being, security and health for the people, that is what is important today.”
Putin won re-election in March with nearly 77 percent of the vote, the largest margin for any post-Soviet leader. It was a result his backers said showed widespread support, but one his critics dismissed as illustrating the stifling of any real opposition.
Abroad, Putin has sought to restore Russia’s sway in world affairs. During his third term as president, he intervened militarily in Ukraine and Syria, putting him at loggerheads with the West. And, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, he directed Russia to meddle in the 2016 presidential election to aid Donald Trump.
At home, he has presided over the restitution to power of the security agency he once served, with many high officials and corporate executives now former officers like Putin. But the domestic economy has continued to lag, only recently emerging from a painful recession. He has also clamped down on critics, arresting scores of opposition activists and restricting the media.
“The symbolic Putin is omnipotent, like St. George slaying the Western dragon, but the flesh-and-bones Putin is barely capable of solving Russians’ everyday problems or preventing tragedies,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a commentary on Putin’s continued popularity despite the economic slump. “The president answers for the symbolic renaissance of feelings of belonging to a great world power, while it is mayors, regional heads, and ministers who answer for fires and rubbish dumps.”
European election observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wrote that his recent re-election, “took place in an overly controlled legal and political environment marked by continued pressure on critical voices.”
Underscoring that point, two days before the inauguration, police arrested about 1,600 people at protest actions called “He is not our czar.” Demonstrators wore paper crowns to mock Putin’s long rule, now running longer than any Russian leader since Stalin.
The arrests added images of swinging nightsticks and shoving matches with the police to the inaugural events. “A Spoiled Party,” read a headline Monday in Vedomosti, a business newspaper.
The violence included a seeming throwback to an era of crowd-control tactics in Russia. Men wearing Cossack uniforms and carrying a type of traditional leather whip known as a nagaika had mingled in the crowd, occasionally lashing out. The Echo of Moscow radio station reported Monday that the Cossack group had won municipal contracts to train for and help with crowd control, though it remained unclear whether they acted in an official capacity Saturday.
Putin first became president on Dec. 31, 1999, when Boris Yeltsin, ailing from heart troubles, resigned. Putin was then elected in 2000 and served twice, the constitutional limit for successive terms. He then became prime minister for one term, before returning to the presidency in 2012. For his third and now fourth spells as president, the term was extended to six years from four.
While not short on pomp, the ceremony Monday was less elaborate than his inauguration in 2012.
In 2012, police cordoned off much of the city center to allow Putin’s motorcade to glide through quiet streets toward the Kremlin. Eerie images of the leader in an empty city sparked criticism that Putin had lost touch with the people.
This year, he stayed within the Kremlin grounds. He walked from his office to a motorcade that drove from one Kremlin building to another, escorted by motorcycles.
In the ceremony, Putin strode through several interlinked, gilded and chandeliered halls in an historical Kremlin palace before arriving at the Andreyevsky Hall, where guests waited. Few foreign dignitaries attended. Among those in the hall were Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor and longtime supporter of Putin.
Dozhd, an opposition television station, cited Kremlin officials saying they sought a lower-key ceremony this time. While not exactly calling it routine, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that the inauguration was less significant this year because Putin was just beginning a new term, not shifting from the prime minister’s office to the presidency.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.