Thursday, December 2, 2010


Italy's Berlusconi: Putin's 'mouthpiece'

Simpatico is not a word that normally associates itself with Vladimir Putin, but Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, sees something in his Russian counterpart that sets him apart from the mass of ordinary men.

"A gift from God," Berlusconi called Putin last month (and, to be accurate, Putin's hand-picked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, as well).

That's the kind of remark that has long had American diplomats in Rome wondering about their Italian ally. They note the extraordinarily cordial friendship Berlusconi has with Putin, and observe that he "appears to be increasingly the mouthpiece" of Putin in Europe, according to documents disclosed by WikiLeaks.

Italy has significant energy deals in the works with Russia, including the construction of gas pipelines that could give Russia even more control of the European market than it already has. But the prime ministerial bromance is not strictly business. It's personal, too.

The two vacation at each other's estates. Putin, at least, reportedly brings much of his family along with him to Italy. There, Berlusconi apparently has a bed that he calls "Putin's bed."

"Berlusconi is of the same blood as Putin," Lilia Shevtsova, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said Wednesday. "They're corporate, ruthless, willing to screw principles."

"Washington doesn't want to see a Europe which is blackmail-able," said James Walston, a professor at the American University of Rome. "Berlusconi's deals with Putin give Russia too much power."

Berlusconi has also been supportive of Russia when other nations have criticized Moscow over Chechnya, or the 2008 war with Georgia.

In Astana, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, Berlusconi and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton together attended a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Berlusconi wasn't happy about the WikiLeaks reports.

Clinton hastened to assure him that the cable in question was just one of thousands, and in no way reflected the U.S. government's official view of him. Meeting with reporters later, she gushed over the Italian leader.

"We have no better friend, we have no one who supports the American policies as consistently as Prime Minister Berlusconi has, starting in the Clinton administration, through the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration," Clinton said.

- Will Englund

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