Vain, macho, obsessed with the cult of personality, autocratic, with a soft spot for the ladies and an undisputed mastery of disinformation, he controls vast chunks of the economy of his country, where the boundaries between the running of the state and mafia-style organised crime and corruption seem, at times, dangerously confused.
Who is this: Vladamir Putin or Silvio Berlusconi? In the eyes of their critics, the match between the two men appeared to be made in heaven, or rather hell, from day one.
Watching the pair holidaying together in Berlusconi’s Sardinia villas, or in Putin’s dacha, most informed Italians have instinctively felt that such an intimate alliance could only be the cause of concern. The WikiLeaks revelations confirm that their love affair was also seen as suspicious by US diplomats.
The American Embassy in Rome went as far as considering it a threat to US interests in Europe. They reported to Washington the suspicion of personal financial motivations and allegations of kickbacks originating from the energy deals between the Russian giant Gazprom and the Italian firm Eni, an oil and gas multinational controlled by the government.
The Italian media – or at least those elements of it not controlled by Berlusconi – have covered the US embassy cables leaks extensively, focusing on three aspects. First, the allegations of corruption on the South Stream gas pipeline, a Gazprom-Eni joint venture that will bring gas from Russia to Europe. Under scrutiny is the Eni building, part of the infrastructure crossing the Caspian sea, which will cost €15.5 bn.
The second focus relates to the Georgian conflict in 2008, and Berlusconi’s motifs in that crisis — the American diplomats described him as “Putin’s unconditional spokesman in Europe”.
The third relates to the confirmation that decisions on Italy’s foreign policy have clearly been shifted from La Farnesina, the foreign affairs ministry, to Berlusconi’s inner circle and, allegedly, to his business associates. This, again, was hardly top secret. Why would one businessman who has so shamelessly used his political power for his personal interests at home decide to stop at national borders?
The fact that the American diplomats seem to candidly share the suspicions that many Italians have always harboured has sent Berlusconi’s people into an almost comic hysteria. The top comedy award must surely go to Franco Frattini, Italy’s current foreign affairs minister, who loudly proclaimed that the WikiLeaks revelations were the “9/11 of International Diplomacy” and that Julian Assange wants “to destroy the world”.
This is the same foreign affairs minister who stands accused of being a sideshow for his own government’s foreign policy. Will he do something to dispel these suspicions?
For now, Berlusconi, hugging Hillary Clinton close at the OCSE meeting in Astuna, has declared that “the case is closed”. The US secretary of state has likewise apologised, reiterating that “Berlusconi is the best friend of America”. But what kind of friend is it who is described by the US dispatches as a “feckless, vain, and ineffective” leader in modern Europe.
They also accuse him of having “frequent late nights” and that a “penchant for partying hard meant that he never got sufficient rest”.
There is something certainly damaging to the credibility of Italy abroad, in such revelations. But there must surely be also cause for more international concern if a major European country, historically and strategically aligned with Washington and the Nato alliance, is seen drifting towards not only Russia in the east, but also towards Libya in the south.
The leader of the Italian opposition, Dario Franceschini, has asked the prime minister to come to parliament to explain. And the general public? The most well-known fact about Silvio and Vlad is that Putin gave his friend a giant bed with curtains, where Berlusconi entertained one of his escorts.
And to be depressingly honest, that is, for a lot of Italians who vote for Berlusconi, a badge of honour.
Annalisa Piras, the London Correspondent of L’Espresso, Italy’s leading newsmagazine.