MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin took the oath as Russia's president on May 7 with a ringing appeal for unity at the start of a six-year term in which he faces growing dissent, economic problems and bitter political rivalries.
Putin, 59, was sworn in with his right hand resting on the Russian constitution in a glittering ceremony in the Kremlin's former throne room attended by 2,000 dignitaries who applauded his every step along a long red carpet to the podium.
Outside the Kremlin's high red walls, police rounded up men and women in cafes wearing the white ribbons symbolizing their growing protest movement against Putin, having detained more than 400 people during clashes with protesters on May 6.
"We will achieve our goals if we are a single, united people, if we hold our fatherland dear, strengthen Russian democracy, constitutional rights and freedoms," Putin said in a five-minute speech after taking the oath.
"I will do all I can to justify the faith of millions of our citizens. I consider it to be the meaning of my whole life and my obligation to serve my fatherland and our people."
The former KGB spy will also be blessed by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and take charge of the nuclear suitcase before hosting a lavish reception.
Although he has remained Russia's dominant leader for the past four years as prime minister, Putin has now taken back the formal reins of power he ceded to his ally Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 after eight years as president.
But he is returning with his authority weakened by months of protests that have polarized Russia and left him facing a battle to reassert himself or risk being sidelined by the powerful business and political elites whose backing is vital.
Riot police detained at least 22 protesters when a crowd of more than 100 started shouting "Russia without Putin" near two exclusive hotels 500 meters from the Kremlin shortly before the inauguration. Bystanders shouted "Shame" as they did so.
"This shows that Putin is scared of dissatisfied citizens. Although there are not so many of us, there are not so few either," said 18-year-old student Pavel Kopilkov.
At least 20 others were detained by police on a boulevard near the route of Putin's motorcade to the ceremony, including some who had been sitting outside a French bistro wearing the white ribbon of protest on their jackets and coats.
A Reuters correspondent saw tables and chairs being overturned as the people were hauled away.
"This is shameful. This is not how you celebrate a holiday -- this is how you celebrate seizing power," liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said shortly after he was detained.
Moscow police said about 120 people had been detained for staging unsanctioned pickets and most would soon be released. In Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, police detained a few people in a crowd of dozens at a protest on the central Palace Square.
CLASHES AT PROTESTS
In the latest big protests on May 6, police detained more than 400 people, including Nemtsov and two other opposition leaders, after tensions boiled over at a rally attended by about 20,000 people across the Moscow River from the Kremlin.
Police hit protesters on the head with batons as they tried to stop demonstrators advancing towards them with metal crowd barriers and throwing missiles. The crowd fought back with flagpoles before the police eventually restored order.
"Putin has shown his true face, how he 'loves' his people -- with police force," said Dmitry Gorbunov, 35, a computer analyst who took part in the protest.
A few kilometers (miles) across Moscow, several thousand people staged a rally supporting Putin, seen by his backers as the only leader capable of defending Russia's interests on the world stage and the guardian of the economy at home.
The rival rallies underlined the rifts opened by Putin's return to the Kremlin and by protests that were sparked by allegations of electoral fraud but fuelled by many Russians' frustration that one man continues to dominate the country.
Although the protests had lost momentum before May 6's rally, they have given birth to a civil society, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union that is gradually chipping away at Putin's authority.
Putin grew up in Soviet days and worked as a spy in communist East Germany, is under pressure to show he can adapt to the new political landscape. Few think he has changed much, if at all.
Putin has eased up on the choreographed macho antics that long burnished his image in Russia, such as riding horseback barechested and shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer gun.
Harder to shake off will be his habit of seeking total control, as political rivals begin to gain status and a rising middle class demands more political freedom.
He has to quell rivalries between liberals and conservatives battling for positions in the new cabinet under Medvedev, who is swapping jobs with Putin. The outcome of the struggle could help determine how far reforms go to improve the investment climate.
The $1.9 trillion economy is in better shape than that of most European countries, but is vulnerable to any drop in the price of oil, the main export commodity. The budget is under pressure from Putin's lavish pre-election spending promises.
Putin has said he wants to attract more foreign investment by improving the business climate, reduce corruption and red tape, and end Russia's heavy dependence on energy exports. He has not spelled out how he will do this.
As in the past, he is likely to use tough anti-Western rhetoric on foreign policy to drum up support if times get tough in Russia. But he never yielded his strong influence over foreign policy as premier, so a major policy shift is unlikely.
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