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Putin Sends Mixed Signals on Right to Protest in Russia

Police in Moscow Monday violently dispersed a demonstration demanding that authorities honor the right to peaceful public meetings, protests, marches, and pickets. At least 500 protesters gathered on Triumphanaya Square in the city center. 150 were detained by police, who beat and bloodied several participants.

The political opposition in Russia holds public rallies in every month that has 31 days to promote Article 31 of the country's constitution, which permits peaceful public demonstrations. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was confronted on the eve of this month's protest by a well-known Russian rock star about restrictions of this constitutional guarantee.

Putin disagreed with rock star Yuri Shevhcuk's charge that police in Russia serve authorities, not the people. Shevchuk did not back down, sparking a noisy exchange between the two.

Shevchuk, a singer with the DDT rock band, told Mr. Putin that 2,500 special troops are often sent to Russian opposition rallies to police 500 protesters. He spoke during Mr. Putin's meeting Saturday at a charity event in Saint Petersburg.

The prime minister noted that many police officers risk their lives to defend ordinary citizens, but conceded Shevchuk's point about corrupt officials.

Mr. Putin says Russia's level of culture is such that a person who gets a bit of authority, a baton for example, immediately starts swinging it to make some extra money. He says that is a characteristic not only of police; it is characteristic of other spheres in which there is official authority and the possibility to rent it out for profit.

Shevchuk called attention to 1,000 years of class differences in Russia, and cautioned against a huge gap in society between privileged classes and ordinary hard-working people.

Shevchuk says Russia needs civil society and equality of everyone before the law - absolutely everyone - including Mr. Putin, and the singer himself. The singer said everything starts with equality, including the construction of hospitals, aid to children, the poor, the handicapped and elderly. For this, says Shevchuk, Russia also needs free media.

The singer then asked if the May 31st protest march in Saint Petersburg would be dispersed. Mr. Putin responded that demonstrations are regulated by local officials, who must consider hospital patients, drivers and others who might be inconvenienced by protesters. But he noted there is nothing wrong with protesters who point out problems to authorities. He added that demonstrators should be thanked for doing so.

The following day, Mr. Putin's press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, told the Echo of Moscow radio station the prime minister's statement should not be seen as authorization to protest, because that is a matter decided by local authorities.

The right to protest in Russia is enshrined in Article 31 of the Russian constitution. Opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov told VOA that President Dmitri Medvedev has the responsibility to uphold the constitution.

Kasparov says it is very obvious that Mr. Putin holds the real levers of power in Russia. The opposition leader says any decisions to disperse a demonstration by force are carried out with Putin's acknowledgment or tacit agreement.

Kasparov has participated in numerous demonstrations that were dispersed by force and resulted in his arrest. He agrees with Shevchuk's observation of a gap in Russia's society.

Kasparov says like in Orwell, some are more equal than others; those with power have authority that goes far beyond their official duties and allows them to violate the rights of other citizens. He says as long as the powerful belong to Putin's vertical power structure, they need not fear any consequences.

Moscow Carnegie Center political analyst Nikolai Petrov says Russian authorities often stage competing events at proposed protest sites, using them as a pretext to ban anti-government demonstrations. Officials sometime permit protests on city outskirts where they do not draw attention. Petrov says the motivation is often fear.

He says local authorities fear doing something that will be negatively received by Mr. Putin and federal authorities. Petrov says authorities as a whole fear mass and uncontrolled events of any kind in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, where they can have great impact.

Rock star Shevchuk urged Mr. Putin to use his political weight to intervene on behalf of the people's right to protest. The prime minister deflected the call, saying he only weighs 76 kilograms.