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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."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

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


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