Climatically hot, it is politically a very strange summer on this side of the ocean. The sudden troubles of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, while in no way removing the authoritarian danger, revealed the vulnerability of the new regime when faced with real resistance. Milan’s prosecutors have forced the triumphant tycoon to give ground, and their undisputed victory may well open an entirely new chapter in the saga of tangentopoli (or “bribe city”). Hitherto the extraordinarily revelations of official corruption concerned kickbacks being paid to get public contracts; now comes news of bribes offered to avoid or minimize taxes, touching Berlusconi’s own interests. All this raises the question of whether the legal machine, set in motion with the idea of changing the political system, has not acquired a momentum of its own. As the Italian disease spreads, still tentatively, beyond the country’s frontiers (I shall deal below with the beginnings of contagion in France), the issue widens as well. Does the corruption at the heart of the system correspond to the economic calamities in Western Europe, foreshadowing a major institutional crisis in the region, with Italy merely a pioneer?
Such and similar speculations were put in an altogether different perspective by the vision of death on our TV screens, by the horror movies from Rwanda. The very figures were staggering. Half a million people killed within three months in a country with a population of about 7 million already seemed unbelievable when the representative of the Red Cross in Rwanda doubled the casualties, putting them at 1 million. Whatever the figures, the images–like scenes from Dante’s Inferno–were unbearable. They provoke not only pleas for immediate help but also arguments for an international organization that would prevent the repetition of such horrors. The images may also silence for a time the smug, Pangloss-like proclamations about the virtues of the New World Order, so common since the fall of the Berlin wall nearly five years ago. Indeed, confronted with a system so obviously rotten to the core, the question that dominates all others, and that links the domestic with the international, is whether we can imagine something better in its place.
Bother With Big Brother. When Berlusconi issued a decree limiting the circumstances in which preventive detention is allowed,thus forcing the magistrates of Milan examining the mani pulite corruption cases to release most of their suspects, the first conclusion was that success had gone to his head. The media-mogul-turned-politician had reason to feel intoxicated. He himself had openly entered politics only this year, and had been going from triumph to triumph: He won the parliamentary election in March, consolidated his position in the European poll in June and paraded in Naples as one of the masters of the world in July. He was also quick to extend his newly won power, moving boldly to gain control of the country’s public television, the RAI, and then of the Bank of Italy. Was this not the moment, particularly with public attention focused on the World Cup in the States, to take on the men who, unwittingly, had made him king by destroying the previous establishment?
Let there be no misunderstanding. The number of people awaiting trial in jail is much too big in Europe in general and Italy in particular, so restrictions on preventive detention are long overdue. But this was Berlusconi’s last concern. You don’t introduce a genuine reform for bribing public servants or filing fraudulent bankruptcy and leave it unchanged for petty thieves. This was class legislation; it was businessman Berlusconi’s decree for his pals, among them Bettino Craxi, longtime leader of the Socialist Party and his former protector. In fact, it was literally lawmaking pro domo sua, since Berlusconi’s own conglomerate, Fininvest, and his own younger brother, Paolo, were soon to be engulfed by the scandal.
Thus, it may have been self-defense rather than self-confidence that prompted Berlusconi. He must have known that the Milan magistrates were ready for a major offensive. A prosecutor from a different team investigating some minor classes of government bribe-taking had stumbled upon an enormous affaire that turned out to involve not only very high-level officials but also Italy’s top economic establishment, from Fininvest to Fiat. The whole inquiry was then handed over to the magistrates of the mani pulite, since it seemed to be a parable of the kickbacks, the other leg on which the old economic system stood.