The Kremlin on Friday tried to explain away President Vladimir Putin's joke about rape charges against Israel's president, blaming difficulties in translating from Russian to English.
Putin's comments to visiting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday, in which he appeared to joke about the allegations, have come as a shock to Kremlin-watchers hardened to the president's earthy language and comments.
"Say hello to your president. He really surprised us...," Putin said to Olmert as reporters were being ushered out just after the two men got down to talks in the Kremlin. An Israeli official said Putin continued about President Moshe Katsav: "I met him. He didn't look like a guy who could be with 10 women."
Earlier this week, police recommended 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.
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 Associated Press.
"Sometimes translation from Russian into English does not reflect the essence of a joke. This was such a case," the Kremlin official said.
Russia's Kommersant daily conveyed an even more graphic version of the conversation, quoting Putin, a former KGB agent, 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."
In its story on the Putin-Olmert meeting, Kommersant commented incredulously: "This was one of those moments when you just can't believe your ears."
The Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press, said that after microphones were switched off, Israel's ambassador to Russia joked that Putin appeared envious of the Israeli president. Olmert told his host: "I wouldn't envy him," said the official.
Putin often tries to establish rapport with fellow leaders by joking about current affairs, but the jokes often seem to be a vehicle for exposing their weak points.
At a July news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in St. Petersburg, Putin parried a question about democratic backsliding in his country by pointedly referring to a corruption scandal implicating the British leadership.
But Putin also shows off earthy language - sometimes in jest, sometimes in anger. Early on in his presidency, Putin crudely called for "wiping out Chechen rebels in the outhouse" and he famously suggested that a French reporter who had posed an uncomfortable question about abuses against civilians in mostly Muslim Chechnya 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."