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Rock Star Tells Putin Russia Ruled by Privileged Class of 'Dukes'

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, responds to questions from rock musician Yuri Shevchuk, right
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, responds to questions from rock musician Yuri Shevchuk, right

The Russian Internet community is widely discussing a recent encounter between one of Russia's best known rock musicians, Yuri Shevchuk, and the country's powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin. During a meeting in St. Petersburg, the singer confronted the politician with bold questions about the future of democracy in Russia.

Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuk was one of several cultural leaders invited to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Long known as an outspoken opponent of the Kremlin, Shevchuk seized the day.

He charged that Russia is ruled by a privileged class of "dukes," its press freedom non-existent and demonstrations broken up by "repressive" security services - all that face-to-face with arguably the most powerful man in the country. Mr. Putin responded, and asked Shevchuk not to turn the meeting into a bazaar.

"The country has no future without a normal democratic development," said Putin. "It's obvious. Because only in a free society, a person can realize himself and then develop the country, science, production on a highest standard. If this doesn't happen then everything stagnates. But the second most important thing is that everyone must follow the law."

Russian TV did not broadcast Yuri Shevchuk's questions, only Mr. Putin's answers. Neither did it show events that followed later when 1,500 people gathered in Moscow's central square to express their disagreement with government policies.

Police broke up the rally 20 minutes after it began and arrested 150 protesters, including blogger Ilya Yashin, who says the Internet is the only way for Russian opposition parties and movements to be heard.

"The Internet has a unique meaning for us," said Yashin. "It's the last line of defense for freedom of speech in the country. People have no way of getting their political word out on TV. Russian TV does not have any live political broadcasts, and the capacity of newspapers is limited. So the Internet and the blogosphere have been developing very rapidly in recent years."

Yashin says he expects more protests in the months leading up to elections next year when voters choose a new parliament and president.

But Masha Lipman from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow says she does not expect the protests will lead to significant changes in the Kremlin.

"This is not something that can affect politics at this point," explained Lipman. "This is not part of the political process. The political process is very tightly controlled and the entry to the political stage is very tightly filtered and controlled by the Kremlin. But the public mood, I think the word is mood here, is changing."

There's wide-spread speculation that Vladimir Putin will again run for president in the 2012 elections. A recent poll in Russia shows that both Mr. Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev enjoy approval ratings that any leader could envy - 80 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the number of Russians with access to the Internet is now at 37 percent, and growing.