Italy’s Crony Diplomacy

Italy’s Crony Diplomacy

The WikiLeaks revelations of Silvio Berlusconi’s bromance with Vladimir Putin have raised new questions about whether their close ties stem from “personal investments.” But the growing popular protests in Italy, echoing those in Britain, France and Greece, are primarily against savage austerity measures that have favored the wealthy.


In the first days of December under the chilly skies of Astana, Kazakhstan, a tired-looking Hillary Clinton was making the rounds of the OSCE summit, mopping up after the WikiLeaks revelations. No one there can have been more thrilled about the photo-op and the boilerplate reassurance of friendship than Silvio Berlusconi, wearing heavy makeup and looking like a victim of the mortician’s art. At home in Italy, things are not going well for Berlusconi. For days, hundreds of thousands of high school and university students and university-level researchers have been demonstrating, occupying the Tower of Pisa and the Colosseum, pitching their tents on the rooftops of sixty universities from Trento to Catania, blocking highways and train stations and marching with the CGIL, Italy’s largest and most left-leaning labor union, in a huge demonstration for jobs. Following the lead of laid-off workers and even immigrants who have been staging rooftop sit-ins, the students are protesting the savage budget cuts hitting the Italian social state—in this case schools, universities and academic research—as well as the bleak prospects for the young in a country where one-third of those under 24 are unemployed, and starting jobs are short-term and severely underpaid.

On December 14 Berlusconi faces a confidence vote he looks less and less likely to survive. His former ally Gianfranco Fini, who split from the governing People of Liberty Party, taking thirty-five MPs with him, has announced a pact between his group and other center-right parties to vote no on December 14. But things are bad all over Italy, between the devastating floods in the north and the garbage that sits in huge, pungently stinking heaps on the streets of Naples. Several ancient walls in Pompeii collapsed into rubble during November rains. Italians can’t stop humming “Bunga Bunga,” a funny, caustic song about the prime minister’s fabled sex parties, parties they learned more about recently when one of the guests, an underage Moroccan pole dancer, got arrested for something else. 

So when they learned from the WikiLeaks cables that US diplomats in Rome had referred to Berlusconi as “feckless, vain and ineffective,” a man fatigued by late nights and “wild parties,” no one was much surprised here. The fact that he was so fatigued that he actually fell asleep the first time he met the current US ambassador to Rome, David Thorne, didn’t astonish those who have seen Berlusconi nod off frequently on state occasions. Nor were Italians shocked to learn that their premier was considered Vladimir Putin’s “mouthpiece in Europe,” and was known to exchange lavish gifts with the Russian prime minister. What in the United States is called the Putin-Berlusconi “bromance” is pretty ho-hum here.

As some Italian observers saw it, the quality of the information in those cables was altogether mediocre and revealed how little Americans understand about a changing world order. Barbara Spinelli, in La Repubblica, spoke for many when she said the dispatches should embarrass the State Department because “they didn’t contain any carefully matured ideas, or offer well-thought-out suggestions or prognoses,” but were mere snapshots that seem obvious, “fragmentary and even dangerous for their sources.” EU parliamentarian Giuseppe Arlacchi, writing in l’Unità, said the authors of the cables “view Iran solely as a country to attack, Russia as a hostile entity, Europe as a pact among the spineless.… [The Americans] think they govern the world and haven’t realized that by now scarcely anyone grants them that prerogative.”

Still, the leaked cables are, as the days go by, raising new questions here. Clinton had asked the embassies in Rome and Moscow to look into any “personal investments” Berlusconi and Putin might have that could be their foreign and economic policies. From Moscow came reports that the two rarely included their diplomatic staff when they met, that both tended to see those meetings as opportunities to do business one-on-one.

“On major issues, it seems that Russian-Italian economic relations are directed by [prime ministers] who have a direct line to each other as well as control over some of the largest assets of their respective economies. To whatever end they direct those assets, it is likely they are not doing so based solely on commercial or rate-of-return calculations. As our contact himself acknowledged, ‘it seems that everything that happens at the lower levels is just for show,’ ” read a cable from Moscow.

What business had Putin and Berlusconi discussed in their frequent get-togethers in each other’s private villas and dachas over the past few years? There was South Stream, the Gazprom-ENI joint venture to build a gas pipeline under the Black Sea passing through Bulgaria and Romania and circumventing Ukraine, as Putin strongly desires. There was the long-standing special place in Russia for ENI, the partly state-owned Italian energy company today under the direction of Paolo Scaroni, who was appointed by Berlusconi in 2005. And what was the quid pro quo? A report from Ronald Spogli, the Bush-appointed ambassador to Rome, said he had been told by the Georgian ambassador to Rome that Berlusconi was personally pocketing a percentage of each section of the Gazprom-ENI deal.

The Bush administration, which had initially seen Berlusconi as a friend in Europe, was quite displeased when the Italian premier defended the Russians against NATO on a series of issues, beginning with the 2008 war in Georgia. Italy was “highly receptive to Russian efforts to gain greater political influence in the EU and Russia’s efforts to dilute American security interests in Europe,” said a cable from Rome, citing “Berlusconi’s desire to be seen as an important European player on foreign policy, leading him to go where others dare not.” Italians now wonder whether political support from Italy was all that Putin was getting out of the relationship. Were there sources of graft for him in these energy projects as well?

As for Berlusconi’s own company Mediaset, it hasn’t yet surfaced in any cables. But Massimo Giannini, writing in La Repubblica not long ago, wondered whether Mediaset, in trouble as the founder’s political fortunes wane, might not be looking for a Russian partner to inject new cash.

That Berlusconi should be a Russophile is nothing new for Italy, of course, observed Lucio Caracciolo, editor of the foreign policy magazine Limes. The premier, both in backing Russia on certain diplomatic matters and pursuing business interests there, “moves in the path of a long-standing Russophile tradition on the part of the Italian political and industrial elite, also pursued by recent center-left governments.” Not that the United States cares—nor is Berlusconi, so discredited by his personal approach to diplomacy, in any position to properly defend that fifty-year-long diplomatic tie, says Caracciolo.

 Before leaving Kazakhstan this time, Berlusconi also held his third bilateral meeting in three years with President Nursultan Nazarbayev, another of his autocratic foreign partners. Oil and gas were presumably on the agenda: ENI is a major player in the Kashagan field under the Caspian and in the huge Karachaganak field. Berlusconi admired the gaudy new capital Astana, and said Nazarbayev was “absolutely justifiably beloved” by his people.

After leaving Astana, Berlusconi, with six Italian ministers in tow, met with Putin and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Sochi on the Black Sea. They signed seven new business deals, worth billions of dollars. Who knows, this could be his last chance to engage in his distinctive brand of crony diplomacy.

On the late news the other night, I watched some students in Bologna, one of the hotbeds of the rebellion, snake down back streets and slip past police lines. All across Italy, the kids are bristling with energy and wit, facing down the forces of order with their “literary shields”—polystyrene rectangles mounted on sticks and decorated with the titles of their favorite reading matter. There was Don Quixote, Machiavelli’s Prince and The Decameron, as well as Harry Potter, Isaac Asimov and the Italian Constitution. “Did you see what they did to our Constitution?” one Roman student quipped to another, holding up a mangled, beaten-up shield. As Columbia University political science professor Nadia Urbinati observed in La Repubblica, the student protests, like those in Britain, France, Spain and Greece, are rightly directed against education budget cuts and fee increases because they attack the democratic basis of education, equality of opportunity, creating systems that favor the privileged. 

Those demonstrations followed others in recent weeks against government budget cuts to the performing arts, including protests at the Rome Film Festival and a one-day strike by directors, writers and workers in theater, movies and the music world. The great Italian comic film director Mario Monicelli, 95, had been the elder statesman of that movement, and when he died on November 29, the students picked up a phrase of his and made it their slogan on banners in Rome: “Yes Mario, we’re gonna do that revolution.”

Twenty years younger than Monicelli, Berlusconi, who likes to think he reflects the spirit of the age in his restless search for the right camera angle, the underage escort girlfriends and the “elegant dinners” (there were no “wild parties,” he said huffily), looks like a dinosaur beside the late movie director—not to mention the students. Those fresh-faced young men and women on the streets are more than just a protest, they are a vision of how this country could finally move forward again.

Time to go, Silvio.


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