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Vladimir Putin is once again the president of Russia. Putin previously ruled from 2000 to 2008, but he spent the past four years as prime minister. That's because Russia's constitution prohibits a third consecutive term. Putin's inauguration took place today in the ornate halls of the Kremlin.

In a speech, he emphasized his commitment to democracy and constitutional rights, but thousands of protesters took to the street yesterday to express their doubts.

NPR's Mike Shuster has our story from Moscow.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: The inauguration ceremony was brief, surprisingly so, punctuated by the stirring strains of Russia's national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, RUSSIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM)

SHUSTER: And after Putin took the oath of office with his hand on the Russian constitution, his speech to the nation was also unusually short, just about five minutes.

Putin was president of Russia for eight years and prime minister for the past four under his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Now with the president's term lengthened to six years, he will hold the office until 2018 with a possible run for yet another term after that. That could amount to a quarter century in power. Perhaps he had that in mind when he observed, it's the meaning of my whole life and my obligation to serve my father land and our people. The translation was provided by Russia Today, the Russian government's English language satellite TV channel.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through translator) We have passed a long and difficult road together. We now feel confident. We have made our country stronger. We restored our dignity as a great nation. The world now sees a restored Russia.

SHUSTER: Putin said recently that the past 12 years have seen Russia's post-Soviet period come to an end. Indeed, millions of Russians were born after the end of the Soviet Union. Now, Putin said, we have everything we need to move forward and create a dynamic state with a stable economy and an active and responsible civil society.

PUTIN: (Through translator) We want to live in a democratic country and we will, where each person has freedom and opportunity to use his talents and energy. We will live in a successful Russia, which will be respected in the world as an open and predictable partner.

SHUSTER: But it is on just the issue of how committed Putin is to building a real democracy in Russia that it seems he is most vulnerable. Yesterday, some 20,000 protesters took to the streets near the Kremlin to voice their belief that Putin is hardly committed to democracy. Street protests erupted late last year and have been dominated by the young. In yesterday's demonstration, easily three-quarters were in their teens or 20s.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

SHUSTER: The marchers demanded a clean government in Russia without Putin. And for most of the afternoon, the demonstration remained peaceful. That's exactly what most of the marchers expected, like 21-year-old Olga. She declined to give her last name.

OLGA: I don't want a revolution. I want just some peaceful change of political situation.

SHUSTER: Since the street protests began, they have been peaceful. But yesterday, thousands of riot police were deployed all around the march. Late in the day, skirmishes broke out between the police and more militant elements of the crowd after the police detained three of the movement's leaders who were scheduled to speak.

The police ended up arresting more than 400, handling many roughly. It was the kind of scene that encouraged critics of the protesters, such as Peter Lavelle, a pro-Putin commentator for Russia Today. He called Putin's victory a landslide by any measure.

PETER LAVELLE: Finally, Putin is genuinely popular in this country. Seeing the protesters yesterday, they're the most undemocratic elements in Russia today because they do not agree with the outcome of an election.

SHUSTER: The protesters believe the election was tainted by ballot rigging. One of Putin's first acts after his inauguration - he named Dmitry Medvedev his prime minister.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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