MOSCOW: Stark divisions within Russia’s elite were exposed Monday when a hot mic mishap showed Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev slamming security forces as "jerks" for launching an early morning raid against a filmmaker.
Medvedev on Friday gave an extensive end-of-year interview to five Russian channels in a clear bid to keep up his profile after ceding the Kremlin to his mentor Vladimir Putin earlier this year.
But attention has focused less on the interview than on a six minute video posted on the Internet of Medvedev’s supposedly off-the-record conversation with journalists that came afterwards.
In a relaxed exchange, Medvedev is shown bantering on topics ranging from wristwatches to whether Santa Claus exists. But most notably he also launches a blistering attack on the habits of the Russian security forces.
Medvedev slammed Friday’s pre-dawn raid by investigators on filmmaker Pavel Kostomarov who has been working on an Internet documentary about the Russian opposition called "Srok" (Term).
"Everything is going to be fine, do not worry," Medvedev tells one of the interviewers, NTV television newscaster Alexei Pivovarov who is one of the co-producers of the documentary.
"They (the investigators) are jerks for showing up at eight in the morning," he said, using a colloquial insult "kozly" that literally means "goats".
"It’s basically just habit... I have many people who work in the security forces and they think that if they come at 7:00 am they will get everything."
The spokesman of the Investigative Committee that carried out the raid then hit back, defending the raid as completely legal and condemning Medvedev’s comments.
"It’s very strange to hear comments that do not just insult Russian investigators but also undermine all the security forces of the country," said spokesman Vladimir Markin.
That comment was later removed from the Investigative Committee’s website with a source telling RIA Novosti this was due to a formulation "allowing an ambiguous interpretation."
But Markin told the Kommersant daily Monday that he was not withdrawing his comments. "That would mean the investigators acted illegally, which is not the case."
Medvedev, a lawyer by training, has no professional background in the security services -- unlike Putin and some of his closest allies who emerged from the Soviet KGB.
He had already touched on the raid in milder terms during the interview itself, questioning the need for the pre-dawn search and noting that the filmmaker had the right to file a complaint.
The material has ended up on the Internet as a result of the live streaming of the interview provided by Russia’s state-controlled English language broadcaster Russia Today.
"We obviously regret that the technical part of the broadcast not intended for public viewing was shown," the channel’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan told Kommersant.
Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova declined to comment on what she described as an "eavesdropped conversation", Kommersant said.
The Izvestia daily said Timakova had called Markin to disown his reaction but he had refused. The hot-mic comments, it said, had become the "last straw" for investigators already irritated by the prime minister.
The Investigative Committee (SK) is the Russian equivalent of the US FBI and has been at the forefront of the controversial crackdown on anti-Putin activists deemed to have acted illegally.
But the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily asked: "If Medvedev calls investigators 'jerks' in a conversation with journalists, then what does he call journalists in a conversation with investigators?"
"Presumably something far cruder."
Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky speculated to the Novye Izvestia newspaper that the surfacing of the comments on the Internet were part of a deliberate campaign to discredit Medvedev, whose popularity has fallen sharply in recent months.
"It's the culmination in a conscious poisoning of the prime minister," he said.
Medvedev has battled to retain his credibility after leaving the Kremlin in May, but the swap led many observers to see his presidency as mere seat-warming for the vastly more powerful Putin.
The hot mic incident is viewable in Russian on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeHfMmVzVNw
Russian weekly New Times also published a transcript: http://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/60769/