Putin takes oath of office in Russia

Inauguration marks first democratic transfer of power

Images of imperial past

Kasyanov appointed acting premier

rest of Cabinet to remain

May 08, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- As somber as ever, Vladimir V. Putin took the oath of office as Russian president yesterday in a ceremony that conjured up traditions from the imperial past and never once mentioned the war in Chechnya that propelled him to the top.

With trumpets and a choir, and soldiers dressed like those who vanquished Napoleon, the Kremlin installed Russia's second elected president in a ceremony that was long on gilt and splendor but surprisingly brief.

"We believe in our strength, in the possibility of our truly reforming and changing the country," Putin said in a short address that he made after placing his hand upon the Russian Constitution and taking the oath. "We want our Russia to be a free, flourishing, rich, strong and civilized country, of which its citizens are proud and which is respected in the world."

The Kremlin later announced that Putin had named Mikhail Kasyanov, the finance minister, as acting prime minister. Kasyanov, 42, is expected to soon be formally nominated to the post, which requires parliamentary approval.

Putin asked the rest of his Cabinet to stay in their jobs.

It was a day, then, of formal transition but little real change. Putin, 47, has been acting president since New Year's Eve, his program is still largely undefined, the fighting still goes on in Chechnya, and Russians, as always, had flocked to their country dachas to take advantage of the long Victory Day weekend.

But it was the first time in Russian history that one elected president had given way to another, giving the Kremlin's organizers a free hand at establishing a ceremonial tradition.

"Today is really a historic day. For the first time throughout the history of the Russian state, high power is being transferred in the most democratic and simple way, by the will of the people -- legally and peacefully," Putin said.

In June 1991, when Boris N. Yeltsin took the oath, he did so in the much larger Palace of Congresses and while standing alone on the stage -- with everyone, evidently including Yeltsin, wondering what would happen to the Soviet Union now that one of its republics, Russia, had an elected president.

"Great Russia will rise from its knees," he said that day, and just more than six months later the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Yesterday's event was full of pomp, but offered none of the stirring words and little of the heightened sense of expectation that greeted Yeltsin nine years ago.

Putin made a long entry through the halls of the Great Kremlin Palace. He was barely more than a speck in the distance when the television camera first caught sight of him, but as he resolutely strode onward, ascended a broad staircase and passed through a succession of splendid halls until he reached the spot of his inauguration, his image grew larger and larger until it nearly filled the frame.

It was a symbolic passage for a man who in eight months has gone from obscurity to the presidency of the Russian Federation, largely thanks to his prosecution of the war in Chechnya. Yesterday, his clenched jaw captured on television for all the world to see, it took him only a few minutes to move ever inward and upward within the palace, finally mounting the rostrum in the St. Andrew Hall.

On this long solo hike to the ceremony, along red-carpeted hallways and through immense gilt-laden doors, Putin passed soldiers dressed in the uniforms of what Russians call the First Patriotic War -- that is, the war against Napoleon. Playing heroic music was a band in uniforms that brought to mind the White Guards, the royalist army that lost the Russian civil war to the Bolsheviks.

Putin walked purposefully, his left arm swinging naturally with his gait but his right hand held close to his hip, as if he were about to draw a six-shooter.

About 1,500 invited guests filled three halls, one leading to the next. Those in the St. George and Alexander halls got a glimpse of Putin as he walked through but had to be content with listening to the ceremony on loudspeakers. Each section of the ritual was introduced by a master of ceremonies who employed the exaggerated inflections of a game show announcer.

Yeltsin joined Putin in the St. Andrew Hall, looking heavier than before and experiencing some trouble reading his brief remarks. But his presence served as a reminder that Russia's new president -- cool, serious, short, youthful -- will never be the great bear of a leader that his predecessor was.

Guests in the audience included Mikhail S. Gorbachev, last president of the Soviet Union; and the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Alexy II, who had taken part in Yeltsin's last swearing-in, in 1996, but was not included this time.

Also present were Putin's old German teacher, Vera Gurevich; his judo coach, Anatoly Rakhlin; and an old friend, Sergei Roldugin, who later reminisced about driving around what was then Leningrad with Putin in an old Zaporozhets, a diminutive Soviet car with a smoky two-stroke engine.

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