MOSCOW Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rubbed shoulders with rappers and was hailed with "respect" in a television show Friday that could help boost his flagging ratings.
Putin, wearing a turtleneck sweater and jacket, went on stage to present awards to participants in "Battle for Respect," a hip-hop music contest run by Muz TV, a Russian rival to MTV.
"It would have been cool to record a joint track with Vladimir Putin because he is a legendary man and our idol," sang rapper Zhigan who won the contest. "Let's make so much noise in his honor that the whole world can hear."
A presenter told the audience of about 100 young rappers in a makeshift television studio in an abandoned Moscow factory building that he wanted "smiles to stay on your faces throughout the evening."
Despite hip-hop's violent image, Putin had a stern message for the rappers about healthy living.
"I do not think that 'top-rock' or 'down-rock' breakdance technique is compatible with alcohol or drugs," Putin told cheering hip-hoppers who responded with chants of "Respect, Vladimir Vladimirovich."
Putin's approval ratings last month had the sharpest fall since he stepped down as Kremlin chief in May 2008. His rating fell 6 percentage points to 66 percent on October 24-25, according to leading pollster FOM. [ID:nL2370140]
Putin's aides responded with plans for a flurry of prime ministerial appearances, including a televised question-and-answer session with the Russian people this month.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied there was a link between the hip-hop appearance and the ratings fall.
"Putin has a high and stable rating which does not require any support," said Peskov. "The main goal of this event was to contribute to the promotion of a healthy lifestyle."
Putin, who stepped down as president last year, remains Russia's most popular and powerful politician. Most Russians believe he will run for President again in 2012.
Putin's carefully orchestrated image also include bare-chested photos on fishing trips in Siberia, appearances with rare animals such as Siberian tigers, leopards and beluga whales and encounters with fringe social groups like bikers.
"He communicates to all social groups. Hip-hop culture is very popular and youths from all corners of our country are fans of this culture," Peskov said.
(Writing by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Jon Hemming)