Barren Streets, Baffled Tourists

At precisely 20 minutes past noon, a 30-gun salute echoed down narrow Nikitskaya Ulitsa in central Moscow. Few seemed to notice. A teenager with bright blond hair used the booms as a sly pretext to wrap his girlfriend in a bear hug.

Cloistered within the Kremlin walls, the carefully orchestrated ascension of Dmitry Medvedev had reached its apogee. Although you wouldn't have known it from the barren streets of central Moscow, Russia had a new president.

There was no cheering or flag-waving to commemorate the historic handover of power that occurred Wednesday. Police barricades blocked pedestrian access to Medvedev's motorcade from every possible angle as it sped along Kremlyovskaya Naberezhnaya toward the Kremlin.

The surrounding area was locked down tight, and the normally teeming streets of central Moscow had the eerie calm of a ghost town.

Despite the bitter cold and restricted access, spirits were high among a handful of Kremlin supporters who came to show their support.

Oksana Muravetskaya, 23, mingled with a group of police officers standing by a barricade on nearby Ulitsa Ilyinka. Bundled against the cold in a bright red coat, she described herself as a commissar in Nashi, the largest pro-Kremlin youth movement.

"The inauguration is a very festive occasion, and that's the way it should be," she said. "I think that every president should stand in front of the people properly and swear to uphold the Constitution."

On nearby Mokhovaya Ulitsa, loudspeakers dressed played Soviet-era marshal music to a near-empty square. The wide lanes, normally choked with traffic at midday, created an eerie echo chamber for the solemn tunes.

Standing alone on a windy street corner, Sergei Asanov, 21, echoed Muravetskaya's enthusiasm. He came into the center from the suburbs to see the inauguration, he said, but hadn't caught sight of the motorcade and feared that it was already too late.

"I'm interested because what's happening here today is very important for our country," he said. "But I'm just so miserable that I can't go in and watch."

As the handpicked successor of the popular President Vladimir Putin, Medvedev comes into power enjoying a widespread support that might not have been evident on the street.

A recent public survey by the independent Levada Center indicated that 47 percent of Russians believe Medvedev should be the sole holder of power after his electoral victory. Twenty-seven percent said power should be split with Putin.

Medvedev's fans on the empty streets echoed the findings of the survey.

"If he continues the path chosen by Putin, I think that things can only get better," Muravetskaya said.

Despite the largely positive reception, there were some who were voiced their unhappiness with the scene on Red Square, albeit quietly.

A 21-year-old journalist from a local radio station expressed disgust with the political transition process. She asked that her name not be published because she feared retribution for voicing her political views.

"I didn't vote. What should I have voted for? It seemed absolutely pointless to me, since we all knew who was going to win anyway," she said.

While Medvedev might enjoy substantial popularity with supporters like Muravetskaya, he wasn't winning any points with dozens of bewildered tourists who found themselves locked out of some of Moscow's most popular sites on Wednesday.

The flow of customers inside the cavernous GUM shopping center off Red Square, a tourist staple, was slowed to a mere trickle. Even the subterranean Okhotny Ryad shopping center, a citadel of Moscow consumerism, was closed.

Mario Villalovias, 31, had no idea why the boyish-faced police officer was turning him away outside the Okhotny Ryad metro station. A professor of philosophy in his native Chile, he speaks no Russian. After a quick translation, his shoulders sank.

"It's closed! Oh my God! It's very bad luck," he said. "I guess I'll have to save the rest for next time."

Austrian Michael Toetel, 27, seethed with frustration that police manning the barricades couldn't tell him and his girlfriend why they were being barred from entering Red Square and expressed surprise when informed about the inauguration and the Victory Day parade on Friday.

"Of course, when you come to Moscow you want to see Red Square," he said. "You ask for help and everyone just shrugs their shoulders."