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At Russia meeting, Putin and Medvedev tangle over democracy

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"It's important to point out that this was an amazing event, the first time we've ever seen top leaders confronted with this kind of criticism to their faces," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "That, in itself, is an optimistic thing and gives rise to hopes of real change."

Experts say the meeting is a sign that Russian leaders have realized that the era of massive oil-and-gas revenues is over and the waves of cash that smoothed over social problems and political disputes during Putin's two terms as president cannot be expected to return anytime soon. Medvedev has made "modernization," the goal of bringing Russia into the 21st century, the signature theme of his presidency.

Reform needed

"Everybody understands that political reform is needed" in order to build social stability and affirm trust in government, says Valeria Kasamara, a political scientist at the state-run Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

"People are losing faith in the possibility of honest elections, and turnout figures show they are ceasing to participate," she says. "The authorities fear a possible destabilization and they feel a need to show that something is being done."

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