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Medvedev's Gaffe And The Elite's Jitters

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) being interviewed by Russian TV channels
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) being interviewed by Russian TV channels
When Dmitry Medvedev was caught by a live microphone last week referring to Investigative Committee agents as "kozly," a deeply offensive insult in Russian, it sparked a minor scandal, embarrassed the prime minister, and infuriated many in the law-enforcement community.
Medvedev's gaffe cast a light on the turbulence that President Vladimir Putin's monthslong crackdown on dissent and more recent anticorruption drive has unleashed among the elite. Both campaigns are being spearheaded by the Investigative Committee and its controversial chief Aleksandr Bastrykin, who has emerged as Putin's attack dog of choice.
In casual banter with journalists following an interview with five television stations on December 7, Medvedev let slip what he really thought about an incident in which Investigative Committee agents raided the house of film director Pavel Kostomarov.
"They were kozly to turn up at 8 in the morning, but that, in fact, is their habit," Medvedev said in comments picked up by a live mic and later circulated on the Internet.

(Kozly is the plural of kozyol, which literally means "goat" in Russian. Its origin as an insult dates back to prison slang in the 1960s, when it was used to describe inmates who collaborated with the authorities. When used commonly as a slur, it is considered particularly disrespectful and can often result in a fight.)

Medvedev's remarks drew a fast and sharp rebuke from the Investigative Committee.
"It was strange to hear comments that not only denigrate Investigative Committee investigators but also undermine the authority of all of the country's law-enforcement agencies," spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement posted on the committee's website.
Markin's comments was eventually removed from the committee's site after repeated complaints from Medvedev's staff. But in an interview with the daily "Izvestia," the spokesman refused to retract his remarks.

"I was defending the honor of the investigators, the Investigative Committee, and all law-enforcement agency personnel. At the same time, I did not insult anybody and did not say anything offensive. So I do not consider it necessary to retract my comments," Markin said.
Medvedev's live-mic scandal attracted headlines for days and illustrated something Kremlin watchers have long known: Much of the elite is deeply uncomfortable with Putin's crackdown on dissent and the methods Bastrykin and the Investigative Committee have used in spearheading that effort.
But something else the premier said -- and said openly in the on-the-record portion of the same television interview -- appears to be the real reason for his conflict with the Investigative Committee.
During the interview, Medvedev spoke out forcefully in support of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who was recently fired over a defense procurement scandal.
"Regardless of what anybody says, there haven't been any charges [against Serdyukov]," Medvedev said in remarks later reprinted in the official government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta." "The investigation is ongoing, but that is only one side. There are accusations and there is also the defense. The investigation needs to continue and a court will decide."

Medvedev went on to praise Serdyukov's work, saying he was a "high-quality defense minister" who "worked effectively" during a period of transition in the armed forces.
Citing unidentified officials, "Izvestia" reported that it was this -- and not Medvedev's live-mic insult -- that really angered the Investigative Committee brass.

"The prime minister's comment that Serdyukov worked 'extremely effectively' at a time when his subordinates are already under arrest perplexed the Investigative Committee, to say the least," one official told the daily. "How is it possible before the case is complete to make excuses for a person who could end up in the dock?"
As I have blogged here, Medvedev appeared to be courting Serdyukov's support late in his presidency when he was hoping to run for a second term. For his part, Serdyukov was also using Medvedev for his own purposes -- to win a higher budget for armament purchases.
While it would be a stretch to call the two allies, Medvedev was clearly not pleased with Serdyukov's sacking. And his willingness to publicly express support for the former defense minister is yet another sign of how much Putin's anticorruption campaign -- no matter how cosmetic -- is causing discord among the elite.
The unwritten rules are changing for the elite in unclear ways -- and with unpredictable results.
-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on December 14, where I will discuss this week's developments in Russian politics with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service and NYU professor and longtime Kremlin watcher Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

Tags: Russia corruption,Dmitry Medvedev,Russian Investigative Committee,Anatoly Serdyukov

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 13, 2012 19:14
You're missing two important points about "kozyol" -- first, the sexual (and more particularly homosexual) aspect of the insult and second the point that the really appalling thing is not that Medvedev would be so stupid as to trash his own people under a hot mic but that he would even consider using language this powerful in front of journalists. It makes it appear that Russia is ruled by beasts (and this man is supposed to be one of the very most civilized!).
In Response

by: Tony from: Ottawa
December 15, 2012 16:19
Yes your comment is so very true but astounding facts are now the norm in Russia and seem to have rendered the average Russian immune to shock and dismay.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
December 15, 2012 17:43
To Tony: "astounding facts" :-))?? I mean, Tony, if you are looking for some REALLY astounding facts, you just need to travel a few hours to the South from Ottawa - in order to find yourself in one of those extremely violent societies where it is a part of the daily life for all sorts of individuals to get a gun and then go to a school and kill 20 children there. The country where this sort of massacres happen ON A REGULAR BASIS is really astounding.
Whereas thre is absolutely nothing "astounding" about the fact that someone called someone a "Kozöl" or anything else. It's just something happens just so often in just so many parts of the world. Just check the dictionary on the true meaning of the word "astounding".
In Response

by: Alex from: LA
December 17, 2012 17:50
Kozel means goat, there is no sexual or homosexual connotation to it, so before you talk about something about another language please do your research not from your stance but of that culture which you judge. In US, we had many instance when Bush (the stooge) used the F word many times in his 8 years. Kozlik and Kozel is not as bad as calling someone a sheep, Goats are very proud animals, they are the leaders of those kind of domestic animals, always in the front leading sheep and many cases even fight of wolves. So Kozel is not as bad as other words in the Russian insults.

by: Jorjo from: Florida
December 15, 2012 16:27
Since when "kozly" (male goats) have become "deeply offensive" in the Russian language? It is a lightly insulting word frequently used even among friends to describe someone who did something stupid, not necessarily deplorable. Someone is trying to make a storm in a teapot about something so minor, really.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
December 15, 2012 17:45
Aha, "Kozöl" in Russian is like "maricón" in Spanish - it all depends on what intonation you put into it.
In Response

by: Jack from: US
December 15, 2012 20:10
the etymology of the word "koziol" is a valuable add to RFE/RL forums, to spice up otherwise boring US government propaganda. Did you hear the traffic to RFE/RL site fell by 50% just in two recent months because people did not see anything here except US government propaganda vilifying Syrian "regime" and promoting exceptional brightness of Hillary Clinton?

by: Mamuka
December 16, 2012 12:34
I saw a Bruce Willis movie dubbed into Russian, where he unleashed a string of foul epithets at the villain. The Russian translation was simply, "Eh, kozyol!"

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
December 17, 2012 06:25
If Mr. Medvedev visited often Radio Liberty, he would have realized that apart of goat there is also camel.
It is clear that to label some people as a camels, this is much more offensive than to label some persons as a goats..

Everything flows, everything word camel often considered particularly disrespectful and can often result in a fight, especially by those who had the privilege to read the "masterpieces" of this cave type...
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Free Abkhazia
December 17, 2012 11:13
Aaah,seems the Moss cow cold has taken its tall on its georgians,freezing under the Mosscow river bridges in their log cabins.Once upon a time Vakhtang stole a tiger`s skin to inspire Shota Rustaveli for his `A knight in tiger`s skin`,but as the oldest georgian custom goes another georgian stole the skin from Vahe,leaving him in his original donkey one.And now we must find a herd of mules to kick poor half-frozen Vahe back unto consciousness again,because the 21th of December is coming soon and we must be ready to celebrate the birth date of Vahe`s spiritual mother,father and Uncle,too-and that is Uncle Joe Koba!!!

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or