President Vladimir Putin made joking references to the sexual assault accusations against Israeli President Moshe Katsav during a meeting with the visiting Israeli prime minister in remarks that shocked longtime Kremlin-watchers.
A Kremlin spokesman said Friday that Putin’s meaning had been lost in translation from Russian to English.
As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with the Russian leader in an ornate reception room in the Kremlin on Wednesday, reporters overheard Putin tell him: “Say hello to your president. He really surprised us.”
The microphones were then cut off, but a member of the Israeli delegation told The Associated Press that Putin went on to say of Katsav: “I met him. He didn’t look like a guy who could be with 10 women.”
The Israeli ambassador quipped, “It seems like he’s envious of him,” and Olmert told his host: “I wouldn’t envy him,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press.
Russia’s Kommersant daily conveyed a more graphic version of the conversation, quoting Putin as saying: “He turns out to be a really powerful guy! He raped 10 women!” It also quoted Putin himself as saying “We all envy him.”
Earlier this week, Israeli police recommended that Katsav be charged with rape, aggravated sexual assault and misconduct after women who once worked for him filed complaints. The 60-year-old has denied any wrongdoing but the scandal has rocked Israel and sparked calls for his resignation from the largely ceremonial post.
'Just can’t believe your ears'
In its story on the Putin-Katsav meeting, Kommersant commented incredulously: “This was one of those moments when you just can’t believe your ears.”
Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried a brief item on Putin’s comments at the bottom of page 6, under the headline “Quite a powerful man!”
The item started off with the quote and then mentioned a report by Izvestia, which noted that, while there is no strong women’s movement in Russia that likely would issue a reaction, women were unlikely to agree with the sentiment.
In Belgium, the Brussels newspaper Het Laatste Niews ran a story under the headline “Putin jokes about sex scandal of Israeli president.”
Deputy Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained away the exchange as a joke.
“In no way can (it) be considered as an approval of raping women or an appreciation of such a potential action,” he told the AP.
“Sometimes translation from Russian into English does not reflect the essence of a joke. This was such a case,” the Kremlin official said.
Not the first time
Putin has made coarse references before in some of his public remarks.
Early on in his presidency, Putin called for “wiping out Chechen rebels in the outhouse.”
He once suggested that a French reporter who had posed an uncomfortable question about abuses against civilians in Chechnya should travel to Russia for a circumcision. “I would recommend that he who does the surgery does it so you’ll have nothing growing back, afterward,” Putin said.
In June, foreign news executives were taken aback when Putin hit back at a question about whether Russia would favor sanctions against Iran if it failed to stop enriching uranium.
“What if my grandmother had certain sexual attributes?” he snapped, dismissing the question as merely rhetorical. “Then she would be my grandfather.”