What started as an innocuous charity event in St. Petersburg last weekend has stirred the liberals in Russia, encouraging hopes that will likely turn into disillusionment.
At a televised meeting of Russia's cultural elite and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a concert for children with cancer, the latter answered some tough questions from Yuriy Shevchuk, a scruffy Russian rock star, about the poor state of affairs for the country's common folk.
Mr. Putin made a grudging endorsement of democracy and human rights when Mr. Shevchuk apparently broke protocol and demanded some answers.
"What is happening in the country now … We are reliving a class society that has remained the same for a thousand years," Mr. Shevchuk charged, as reported by the official Russian RT television.
"There are 'dukes and boyars' possessing cars with signal [emergency] lights. And there are common people who toil away… And there is an immense gap between them. I am sure you know this."
In response, Mr. Putin offered to the interviewer, who, by the way, was in no way yearning for a return to Soviet life, that "Russia will have no future without a normal democratic development."
The incident does not signal an impending democratization in the plutocratic society, as some hope.
Here's what's going on.
First, the mere fact that Mr. Putin did not resort to other solutions - such as cutting the microphone, for example - means that he has seized the opportunity for an early test of the Russian electorate well ahead of the 2012 presidential election campaign.
Second, Mr. Putin's decision to engage in an exchange on hard topics, is lip service to the growing popular discontent caused by declining living standards - the result of a prolonged dip in oil prices.
Third, the incident is food for thought for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Mr. Putin's placeholder. Mr. Medvedev is becoming obsolete as Mr. Putin's de-facto public relations officer, a function that the latter now appears ready to handle himself.
Besides raising hopes for a democratic future in Russia, what the interview does not do is signal any change in the Kremlin's icy relations with the United States.
The West remains a scapegoat for Mr. Putin and his cabinet as they continue to profit from the country's diminishing revenue from the sale of fossil fuel by channelling the bulk of it into the corporations he controls.
In the present economic crisis, however, Mr. Putin is apparently choosing to distance himself publicly from this activity, and the public is starting to catch on even in the absence of independent news broadcasts.
A softer, kinder image is apparently Mr. Putin's new public relations scheme to keep the status quo. He is simple running an early test, well ahead of the 2012 presidential election, just in case.
Mr. Medvedev's repeated harangues in defense of democratic values have predictably made no difference in a country that doesn't have a working parliamentary system, independent judiciary, or independent media.
Nor will the demagoguery of Mr. Putin, who has successfully spearheaded the dismantling of those fledgling institutions over the last decade.
Mr. Putin has simply remained true to himself in the face of new challenges by rising to a higher level of hypocrisy.
Mike Sigov, a former Moscow journalist, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.
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