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Analysis & Opinion
08.05.08 Inauguration Augurs
Comment by Andrei Zolotov-Jr.

Since the word “inauguration” stems from the root “augur” – a Roman pagan religious official, who observed natural signs and interpreted them as an indication of divine approval or disapproval of some proposed action – it would be only natural to read the signs of Wednesday’s inauguration of President Dmitry Medvedev. What do they mean both for our immediate political future, including the roles of the outgoing and new president, and how do they reflect Russia’s political culture in general?

This was the first presidential inauguration which had an active (perhaps too active) role for the outgoing president, Vladimir Putin. It all began logically, with the outgoing president leaving his office and saying “goodbye” and “thank you” to the presidential regiment and to all of the armed forces by association. He was, after all, the commander-in-chief for the past eight years.

It was also understandable that the outgoing president opened the ceremony in St. Andrew’s Hall with a short speech summing up his past service, making a reference to the late first President Boris Yeltsin’s exhortation to “keep Russia safe,” which he had made on Dec. 31st 1999, as he resigned in favor of then Prime Minister Putin, and repeated during Putin’s first inauguration in April 2000. After taking the constitutional presidential oath, president Medvedev made a speech, conspicuously based on liberal values enshrined in the oath. He said that the development of civil and economic freedoms would be a priority during his presidency, and stressed that it is the people who are the “true force of the state.” With the strengthening of the state seen as the main achievement of Putin’s presidency – often at the expense of civil liberties – this emphasis was consistent with Medvedev’s statements during the campaign, designed, it seems, to differentiate his stance from that of Putin.

Yet with the question of whether Medvedev will be a self-sufficient head of state, or a cover-up for continued Putin’s rule, on everybody’s mind, one element of the inauguration ceremony augured not so well for Medvedev’s independence. After the ceremony in St. Andrew’s hall, Medvedev and Putin came out together to the Cathedral Square, and the new president reviewed the parade of the presidential regiment, with Putin standing to his right on the podium – and not a couple of steps below and to the side, where other top officials stood. Whether or not this is prescribed by the standard protocol – after all, this week’s was the first inauguration in which the sitting president transferred the powers to the elected president – this episode appeared excessive. After all, it is Medvedev who is the commander-in-chief now, and his power is superior. Seeing the two of them on the porch together spoke in favor of the much feared diarchy.

The Armoury Chamber – the famous Kremlin museum just several hundred meters away from the site of the ceremony – houses a unique dual throne, made in the late 17th century for two young brother-tsars – Peter and Ivan. It even has a covered-up window in the back, for a boyar to whisper to the young tsar what to say during the ceremony. But we all know that this diarchy did not last long – just like any other diarchy in Russia’s history.

The tsarist allusion was all too natural throughout the ceremony – and it correctly reflects the nature of the Russian regime, which combines the elements of democracy with a strong monarchist tradition. After all, it was in the throne hall of the royal Grand Kremlin Palace, which was reconstructed in the 1990s, that the inauguration was taking place, with the throne draped behind the backdrop in the colors of the Russian flag. Or maybe it was removed for the occasion – the glamorous television broadcast did not show it. But in any case, it stands empty, although carefully reconstructed after Soviet-era demolition – a telling sign of the often untold mourning of the monarchy lost.

The role of the Orthodox Church in the inauguration of the head of the secular state requires special attention. During President Boris Yeltsin’s inauguration in 1996, which took place in the Soviet –era Kremlin Palace of Congresses, Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church was on the stage, along with the heads of the Constitutional Court and the chambers of parliament, and he gave a blessing to the president and made a short speech at the end of the ceremony.

As of Putin’s first inauguration in 2000, the authorities began to treat the separation of church and state more carefully. On Wednesday, just as in 2000 and 2004, the patriarch stood first among the guests in St. Andrew’s hall, but not on the podium where Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Constitutional Court dressed in a mantel and hat, played the role of the high priest of the law. But immediately after the inauguration ceremony per se, he served a private prayer service for the new president in the Annunciation Cathedral – the ancient private chapel of the Russian tsars. Apart from some prominent bishops, according to a group photograph released by the Moscow Patriarchate, the ceremony was attended by a prominent Moscow Archrpriest Vladimir Volgin, thus confirming the rumors that he is the pastor to Medvedev family.

In the third ceremony broadcast on Russian television, the officer carrying the “nuclear briefcase” presented himself to Medvedev, with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in attendance.

It was three ceremonies and not just one, constituting the presidential inauguration, all of them combining the way the Kremlin sees the origins of its power – the court-like ceremony broadcast to the masses in a glitzy television program, featuring a disproportionately high role for the outgoing president, the special service by the head of the Russian Church in the royal setting, and the nuclear code.
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