Across much of Europe in recent years, Silvio Berlusconi's name has become a punchline. While Berlusconi spent nine years total as Italian prime minister, discontent with his leadership forced him to leave office in 2011. He has since faced a variety of legal woes, often relating to alleged corruption or sexual misconduct: Just this month the 78-year-old was found guilty of bribing a senator and only escaped a three-year sentence because the statute of limitations would soon expire.
Berlusconi still has one powerful friend left, according to Berlusconi. And, by some measures, that man might be the most powerful person in the world: Vladimir Putin.
According to Italian newspaper La Stampa, Berlusconi told a recent dinner that he has been approached by the Russian president to become economy minister. Berlusconi explained: "In Italy, I have been relegated to the sidelines, but Putin has told me he is willing to give me citizenship, and entrust me with running the economy ministry."
"My future? Becoming minister for my friend Putin," he added.
Putin and Berlusconi have certainly been friends for quite some time. According to the Moscow Times, their bromance was cemented in the summer of 2002 when Putin's two teenage daughters spent a month at Berlusconi's summer residence in Porto Rotondo. The following year, Putin's entire family visited.
In the years that followed, the pair seemed to show genuine warmth to each other on public occasions. They were photographed giggling during official visits, and in 2009, Berlusconi was accused of snubbing an official visit from King Abdullah of Jordan to celebrate Putin’s birthday. Berlusconi once described the leadership of Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia's president, as a "gift from God."
The two were clearly close. In an interview with the BBC last year, Berlusconi claimed that Putin had once pranked him during a visit to St. Petersburg. "Putin hid behind the pillar, and did 'coo coo' to me from behind!" he said. Audiotapes purporting to be of Berlusconi's notorious "bunga bunga" parties revealed that a "big bed" in his Rome residence was Putin's.
What explains the bond between the two men? Politically, they share a pro-business, pro-power outlook, but perhaps just as important are their personalities: They're manly men on a continent of gray, dull eurocrats. In diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks, American diplomats in Rome noted that Berlusconi "appears to be increasingly the mouthpiece" of Putin in Europe. There were suspicions that the Italian leader could be "profiting personally and handsomely" from secret deals with Russia.
"Berlusconi is of the same blood as Putin," Lilia Shevtsova, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said in 2010. "They're corporate, ruthless, willing to screw principles."
Gradually, the relations both men had with the rest of the West soured. Berlusconi lost his office and became a fixture of the Italian courts instead, while Putin's stance on Ukraine stoked serious tensions with the United States and the rest of Europe.
The two men stood up for each other, however. “Berlusconi is being tried for living with women,” Putin said in 2013 at the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow, according to the Russian news service Interfax. “If he were homosexual, no one would lay a finger on him.”
Meanwhile, Berlusconi backed Russia in the face of international sanctions related to the Ukraine conflict, calling on the Italian government to “convince our American friends that the return to the atmosphere of the Cold War is inadmissible.”
All friendships have limits, however. Russia has shown itself willing to embrace embattled foreigners before – in 2013 it granted Gerard Depardieu citizenship after the French actor's battle with Paris' tax laws – but it has stopped short of granting them a spot in government. After Berlusconi's comments made headlines around the world this week, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was forced to deny that the Italian would take up a place in the Russian government, saying that the support was "metaphorical" and "not a formal offer." Berlusconi's spokesperson now says his comments were a joke.
Even if there's no political relationship in their immediate future, the personal rapport between the pair appears undiminished: As recently as October, the men socialized in Rome until 3 a.m., and Berlusconi made a visit to Russia last month at the invitation of Putin. It's (almost) heart-warming.
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