He may have had plenty of help in getting there, but for Vladimir Putin the final ascent to the top was long and lonely. As he climbed the 57 steps of the gilded Kremlin hall to assume Boris Yeltsin's old throne, Putin was without his retinue of handlers and bodyguards for the first time in nine months. He left them at the entrance to the Grand Kremlin Palace after stepping alone from his dark blue Mercedes and crossing the threshold of the ornate palace.
Back in 1996, when Yeltsin was inaugurated for his second term, the venue was the somber Soviet-era Hall of Congresses, a white marble edifice erected by Nikita Khrushchev for Communist Party pageants. Putin's minders shifted the scene to the 162-year-old Kremlin Palace, recently restored to its imperial grandeur at a cost of hundreds of million dollars. As Russia's second elected President swore on a copy of the Constitution "to respect and to guard the human and civil rights" of his subjects, the 47-year-old former kgb officer stood where generations of Romanovs celebrated their coronations.
Befitting a political novice who was completely unknown less than a year ago, the brief ceremony was long on symbolism, short on specifics. Ever diligent, Putin had run through his paces the evening before. In the dress rehearsal, the role of the gallery of vips from the state ministries, chancellery, parliament, armed forces and clergy was performed by 1,500 special forces soldiers, a group with whom Putin is no doubt more at ease.
Putin's investiture featured other significant changes from Yeltsin's second inauguration. Patriarch Aleksy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, was among the crowd, not on stage as he had been for the Yeltsin ceremony. (Yeltsin's critics scolded that having the Patriarch bless his oath signaled that the Orthodox Church was emerging again as the state religion.) It was not the only attempt at political correctness: Putin invited Mikhail Gorbachev, excommunicated from the Kremlin during the Yeltsin reign. Still, Gorbachev was relegated to the crowd, where he stood not far from another unusual Kremlin guest — Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former Soviet kgb chairman. Once Gorbachev's ally, Kryuchkov was a collaborator in the failed 1991 coup. After a stint in jail, he was sent into political exile. Yet here was this frail figure making the guest list — along with the judo coach and favorite school teacher — of his former underling.
Putin made sure to emphasize the solemnity of the event. "For the first time in the history of our state," he intoned, "the supreme power is delivered in the most democratic way, according to the people's will. Legally and peacefully." In fact, he had been Prime Minister since last August, and has, de facto, been running the country since Yeltsin's sudden early retirement on New Year's Eve. Still, the significance of his ascent, however cynically contrived and orchestrated by Kremlin handlers eager to protect Yeltsin's legacy and ensure his tranquil retirement, had to be trumpeted by Putin, and by his predecessor.
Yeltsin, 69 and visibly aged, was emotional. At times, he had trouble reading his teleprompter. He ended his brief speech with the same exhortation he gave Putin the day he stepped down: "Take care of Russia." For his part, Putin delivered his oath and short speech with the ardor of the man Moscow broadsheets have taken to calling a live action hero — for his predilection for taking spins in jet fighters over Chechnya or overnighting in a submarine. He vowed to better the lives of his subjects. "I know that in Russia the head of the state always has been and always will be a man responsible for everything that happens in the country," he said, promising that Russia would remain "a really modern democratic state" under his tenure.
For these weary subjects, however, there was little in Putin's first presidential week to warrant optimism. The war in Chechnya, after a series of lethal spring ambushes, looks more and more like the military quagmire of old. Last week, Chechen fighters again attacked a convoy of Russian troops — this time in neighboring Ingushetia. Official sources said 19 soldiers were killed.
Meanwhile, Putin's much-vaunted reform agenda remains merely words. His first moves promise little change from the Yeltsin era — a period of capitulation to Russia's powerful financial-industrial groups, and metastasizing state corruption. Putin has been promising to restore Russia's greatness through a "dictatorship of law." But on day four of his presidency masked and armed members of the tax police and Federal Security Service (FSB) stormed the offices of media baron Vladimir Gusinsky, whose outlets have dared to criticize Putin, however mildly. Gusinsky cried that the raid signaled another political backlash. (In 1994, federal agents made a similar raid after the company aired scathing frontline reports during Russia's first Chechen war.) The FSB denied that "anyone is pressuring any journalists." Putin said he values freedom of speech, but "we are all equal before the law."
By mid-week, Putin did nominate a Prime Minister. The choice of Mikhail Kasyanov, his 42-year-old Finance Minister, was no surprise. Kasyanov has led the cabinet since Putin became acting head of state in January. To some, Kasyanov is an urbane, free-market reformer, the pragmatist who managed earlier this year to restructure nearly $32 billion in Russian debt held by Western creditors grouped together in what is known as the London Club. But to others, he is little more than a slick stand-in for the venal interests of the old Yeltsin clan. In the Russian press Kasyanov is often cast as a proxy for Boris Berezovsky, the political operator-cum-oligarch extraordinaire, and for Berezovsky's former protege, Roman Abramovich, who runs the oil giant Sibneft. Earlier this year, Berezovsky and Abramovich — who both attended the vip inaugural event — cornered Russia's hugely profitable aluminum industry. They created a new company, Russian Aluminum, that would control 80% of Russia's aluminum output. The move, thus far, has been blessed by Putin's Anti-Monopoly Minister.
Standing on the Kremlin stage at his swearing-in on May 7, Putin promised to make Russia "a free, flowering, rich and mighty and civilized country." For months, he has spoken of a plan to pull off this colasal task. Now, the President must begin to deliver on the promises that helped him climb those 57 red-carpeted steps.