MOSCOW: Vladimir Putin on Monday takes office as Russian president for a historic third term, facing the challenges of a fast-changing society and an outburst of protests against his 12-year domination.
Putin will take over from Dmitry Medvedev as president after a four-year absence from the Kremlin, in a lavish ceremony that aims to remind the world of post-Soviet Russia's status as a great global power.
Medvedev has served as president since 2008 as Putin was constitutionally barred from serving more than two consecutive terms, having become head of state in 2000 following the resignation of Boris Yeltsin.
Few doubted that Putin remained in fully charge as he instead took the job of prime minister, yet analysts say he now faces unprecedented challenges in his third term after mass opposition protests and an explosion in Internet use.
Police on Sunday used batons and charging tactics to break up an anti-Putin rally in the centre of Moscow which had been sanctioned by the authorities but had descended into chaos.
More than 400 people were arrested, including three key leaders of the nascent protest movement: anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, liberal leader Boris Nemtsov and ultra-left wing activist Sergei Udaltsov.
Putin, 59, will be sworn in just after midday (0800 GMT), when Medvedev hands him the ceremonial chain of presidential office made up of golden double-headed eagles.
Placing his hand on a copy of the constitution, he will swear to "respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the people and citizens" as well as "observe and protect the constitution of the Russian Federation."
He will also pledge to protect "sovereignty and independence and the security and integrity of the state".
But activists accuse Putin of having sacrificed rights in the pursuit of stability and of having kept Russia's former richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail for almost a decade for daring to oppose him.
The opposition has vowed to press on with protests, lambasting the March 4 presidential elections, as tainted by fraud and dirty tricks.
Putin won the election with a first-round knockout, winning 63.6 percent of the vote.
Foreign heads of state are not expected at the inauguration, although the lifenews.ru website reported that former political players such as Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a friend of Putin, and California ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would attend.
Guests at a reception later would be served finest Russian dishes including sturgeon steak and smoked cod washed down by Kremlin vodka and an astonishing 5,000 bottles of 2008 Abrau Durso "shampanskoye" Russian sparkling wine, RIA Novosti reported.
"The inauguration of the president must feel traditional and not change every time there is a new head of state," the head of the Kremlin's management department Vladimir Kozhin told the agency. "Traditions must be created and preserved," he added.
Although the protest movement has lost momentum and unity since it mustered more than 100,000 people for rallies after December's legislative polls, analysts expect Putin will get a far rockier ride in his new six-year term.
"Vladimir Putin's main problem is that he cannot present Russia with any new ideas other than stability," said Konstantin Eggert, political commentator of Kommersant FM radio.
"Yes, Putin is returning to the Kremlin. But as far as ideas and politics are concerned, his era is already over."
Medvedev, meanwhile, is expected to take on Putin's old job as prime minister but remain largely in the shadows after his presidency failed to deliver initial promises of political and economic modernisation. (AFP)