Putin inaugurated as Russian president amid protest at home, uncertainty in Armenia & worldwide

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 7 May 2018
Putin inaugurated as Russian president amid protest at home, uncertainty in Armenia & worldwide

Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin has taken office as president for a fourth term amid protests at home and in its outpost of Armenia ahead of the crucial premiership bid of the opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan scheduled for May 8 and the deepening tension with the West over the Kremlin far-reaching ambitions and reluctance to play by common rules.

"I swear, in the exercise of the powers of the President of the Russian Federation, to respect and protect the rights and freedoms of man and citizen, to observe and protect the Constitution of the Russian Federation, to protect the sovereignty and independence, security and integrity of the state, faithfully serve the people," the Russian president said in his inauguration speech on May 8.

In the meantime, Putin’s May 7 inauguration saw a series of successive failures and setbacks both at home and abroad. Putin, by nature, does not like surprises and especially those which mar his image and inflict damages to his global standing. Also the unpredictable developments in Armenia have enraged him and the gradual drift of official Yerevan away from the Kremlin sphere of interests will further aggravate the situation and thus of Russia.

Opposition protest – “He is not our tsar”

On May 5, the Russian opposition led by anti-corruption leader Aleksey Navalny took to the streets to protest Vladimir Putin’s incoming inauguration for a fourth term under the slogan “He is not our tsar”. In Moscow, the unauthorized anti-Putin protest rally-goers gathered on Pushkinskaya Square, central Moscow.

Navalny had called for people to take to the streets in more than 90 towns and cities across the country to show their opposition to what he said was Putin's autocratic Tsar-like rule.

Vladimir Putin won a landslide re-election victory in March, extending his grip over Russia for six more years until 2024, making him the longest-lasting ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who ruled for nearly 30 years.

Activists of the pro-Kremlin nationalist National Liberation Movement (NOD) simultaneously staged their own pro-Putin rally on the same venue, chanting patriotic slogans, while opposition protesters chanted "Russia will be free" and "Russia without Putin". The opposition rallies were held in a string of cities across Russia to protest against the president’s inauguration.

Russian riot police detained opposition leader Aleksey Navalny and over 1,600 anti-Kremlin activists. Navalny was previously arrested on sight at other banned demonstrations and subsequently served jail terms. Navalny, who was barred from running in the March election against Vladimir Putin on what he said was a false pretext, was detained soon after showing up on Moscow's central Pushkinskaya Square.

Reports say that nearly 100 cities saw protests against Putin’s inauguration. Of the 1,600 detained, 475 people were arrested in Moscow, 164 in Chelyabinsk, 75 in Yakutsk, 63 in Tolyatti, 53 in St Petersburg, 49 in Krasnodar, 35 in Krasnoyarsk, 26 in Novokuznetsk and other major cities of Kaluga, Novokuznetsk, Samara, Barnaul, Penza, Blagoveshchensk, Kurgan, Tver, Voronezh, Kemerovo, Yekaterinburg, Tomsk and others.

Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny was released from police custody, pending a court appearance. "It seems that the order has come 'not to jail before the inauguration'. Two charge sheets have been drawn up against me: organizing a rally and resisting the police. But at half past midnight, they decided to release me from the police department pending trial," the politician tweeted soon after midnight.

Armenia’s disobedience enraged Putin

Protests in Armenia, Russia’s most obedient satellite, have caught the Kremlin nodding and without any plans on how to deal with them.

Political experts say Armenia appears at last to be breaking with its post-Soviet malaise and embracing democratic change, thanks to a grass-roots movement that has found a way, for now, to straddle Russia and the West.

If Pashinyan succeeds in establishing a new government, it will be in large part because the police and army refused to open fire on the protesters who turned out in huge numbers to support him. This refusal to kill fellow citizens is often the fulcrum of social change.

Armenia’s basic political dilemma over the past 25 years has been how to reconcile its pro-Western political sympathies with its military dependence on Russia. This impasse helped foster a circle of pro-Moscow oligarchs around Sargsyan, who siphoned much of the country’s wealth.

The popular uprising has been tolerated, so far, by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He seems to have decided that it was better to sacrifice his ally, Sargsyan, than to risk losing Armenia itself. 

EU denounces arrests in Russia

The detention of over a thousand demonstrators and violence used against them by the Russian authorities across the country today threaten the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly in the Russian Federation, the EU said in a statement.

The detention of journalists also threatens the freedom of the media. These fundamental rights are enshrined in the Russian constitution and we expect them to be protected, not eroded. Even if some of the demonstrations were not authorized in the location where they took place, this cannot justify police brutality and mass arrests.

The European Union expects the Russian authorities to abide fully by the international commitments Russia has made, including in the Council of Europe and the OSCE, to uphold these rights, and release without delay peaceful demonstrators and journalists, it read.

Russia versus NATO

In the meantime, Russia is beefing up its military activities around the globe as well as North Atlantic and Pentagon, citing Russian patrols, bolsters US, NATO presence there. The Pentagon has launched a new naval command to bolster the U.S. and NATO presence in the northern Atlantic Ocean, citing an increased Russian presence in those waters.

“The return to great power competition and a resurgent Russia demands that NATO refocus on the Atlantic to ensure dedicated reinforcement of the continent and demonstrate a capable and credible deterrence effect,” Johnny Michael, a Pentagon spokesman, said on May 4.

The new NATO command “will be the linchpin of trans-Atlantic security,” he said. Outlines of the plan were approved at a February meeting of NATO defense ministers as part of a broader effort to ensure the security of the sea lanes and lines of communication between Europe and North America.

The Pentagon’s decision reflects growing worries across Europe and within NATO about Russia’s increased military presence and patrols in the Atlantic region.

Russia has increased its patrols in the Baltic Sea, the North Atlantic, and the Arctic, NATO officials say, although the size of its navy is smaller now than during the Cold War era.

Despite evidence that Russia’s weak economy forced Moscow to slash military spending by 20 percent last year, Czech Army General Petr Pavel, the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, says that NATO still must build up its defenses.are significant,” he said. “And we simply cannot be blind to an increase of defense capabilities in all services, all domains. That’s why we have to react.”

Under the new plan, the United States will set up NATO’s new Atlantic Command headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, where the Pentagon is also offering to host a proposed NATO Joint Force Command.

Russia ‘More Assertive’

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in February that “we have seen a much more assertive Russia, we have seen a Russia which has over many years invested heavily in their military capabilities, modernized their military capabilities, which are exercising not only conventional forces but also nuclear forces.”

He said the new Atlantic Command will be vital for the alliance to be able to respond. NATO also created a new logistics command, which is expected to be located in Germany. At the same time, the U.S. Navy is re-establishing its 2nd Fleet command, which was eliminated in 2011 in a move to save costs.

Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said the move comes as the security environment “continues to grow more challenging and complex” now that “we’re back in an era of great power competition.”

The Navy said the command will oversee ships, aircraft, and landing forces on the East Coast and northern Atlantic Ocean, and will be responsible for training forces and conducting maritime operations in the region. Restarting the command was one of several recommendations in a Navy study done following two deadly ship collisions last year that killed a total of 17 sailors.

The command will begin operations July 1. It will report to U.S. Fleet Forces, and will initially include 11 officers and 4 enlisted personnel. Those numbers will eventually increase to more than 250 personnel, the Pentagon said.