[Marxism] Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin: the odd couple

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Oct 3 06:59:36 MDT 2015


(Good article but the title is misleading since there is nothing odd 
about the bromance of these two scumbags.)

Financial Times, October 2, 2015 10:04 pm
Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin: the odd couple
by Alan Friedman

During a tour of a winery in Crimea last month, Vladimir Putin and 
Silvio Berlusconi were offered a taste of a rare vintage, a 240-year-old 
bottle from Jerez de la Frontera. The Spanish wine, brought to Crimea 
during the reign of Catherine the Great by Count Mikhail Vorontsov, was 
thought to be worth more than €100,000.

The tasting prompted outrage in Ukraine, which last year watched 
helplessly as Russian forces annexed Crimea, an autonomous region that 
the Soviet government transferred to Ukrainian control in 1954. 
Prosecutors prepared charges against the winery’s director, claiming she 
had allowed the Russian president and the former prime minister of Italy 
to consume Crimea’s national heritage. Mr Berlusconi has no regrets.

  “It was delicious,” the Italian billionaire-turned-politician says in 
an interview. “We visited this famous winery and they asked us to taste 
their wines. Then, unexpectedly they allowed us to taste this bottle of 
wine from the 18th century, of which they were very proud. It was 
fantastic.”

Controversy has long surrounded the relationship between Mr Berlusconi 
and Mr Putin, the odd couple of international politics. For years 
western diplomats have tried to fathom the nature of their friendship, 
with one US ambassador in Rome alleging shady business dealing and wild 
parties, according to cables released by WikiLeaks. Mr Berlusconi flatly 
denies such claims.

Both men describe a friendship that has endured even after Mr Berlusconi 
was forced out of office in disgrace in 2011. But theirs is a 
relationship that appears rooted in mutual self-interest and genuine 
admiration. Mr Berlusconi, who holds ambitions of mounting a highly 
unlikely political comeback, has sought to fashion a role for himself as 
an intermediary between Moscow and the west. And as the former prime 
minister has become more isolated in Italy, he has seemed more willing 
than ever to defend Mr Putin — who himself is regarded with increasing 
disapproval and concern in western capitals.

The meeting in Crimea took place as Mr Putin was preparing to intervene 
militarily in Syria while re-engaging with world leaders at this week’s 
UN General Assembly. Ostensibly, the Russian leader’s aim was to pursue 
a new war against terror represented by Isis, the radical Islamist 
group. But many observers detected a broader goal: to prop up President 
Bashar al-Assad’s faltering regime in Damascus and weaken western 
support for sanctions imposed after Russia’s military intervention in 
Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Mr Berlusconi’s mere presence in Crimea went against the spirit of EU 
sanctions endorsed by the government he used to run. He remains 
unapologetic. “Putin is fighting Isis and the rebels,” he said in an 
interview before Mr Putin’s UN speech, “and that is the right thing to 
do in Syria.”

‘No favours’

At first glance the two men could not be more different. One is a 
self-made billionaire media mogul-cum-showman elected three times, 
becoming the longest serving prime minister of modern Italy. He has also 
spent more than 20 years fighting corruption charges and latterly 
accusations of having paid for sex with an underage prostitute, a charge 
Mr Berlusconi was acquitted of six months ago. The other is the 
outwardly austere former KGB man, the judo expert and master of 
destabilisation, who has risen to become a quasi-tsar and a constant 
irritant to the west.

Over many hours of interviews, Mr Berlusconi denies suggestions that 
their relationship is rooted in intertwined business interests, though 
he acknowledges that Russia has long been an important trading partner 
for Italy, especially in energy. “Putin has never asked me for a single 
favour, and I have never asked a favour of him,” Mr Berlusconi says.

Valentino Valentini, a Russian-speaking aide to Mr Berlusconi who has 
observed both men at close quarters over the past decade, says Mr Putin 
likes the way Mr Berlusconi puts personal relationships first in his 
business and political dealings.

“Berlusconi is a businessman, an entrepreneur,” says Mr Valentini. “He 
may not be good at diplomatic protocol, sure, but he has his own 
approach to international politics. First he wants to get to know you 
and connect, and then he proceeds with the business at hand. This is 
completely different from the American approach, where first you get 
down to business and then you decide if you like the person or not. In 
his dealings with Putin, the human dimension counted a lot.”

Mr Putin calls Mr Berlusconi “the last of the Mohicans” in Europe. Asked 
what he meant by this, he replies with a description that many Italians 
who view Mr Berlusconi as a cunning politician would not recognise. “He 
does not just live from election to election. He has a wide and 
strategic vision.”

Ready for his close-up

On April 2 2002, Mr Berlusconi was a guest at Mr Putin’s dacha in Sochi, 
on the Black Sea. After drinking Russian tea before the television 
cameras, the two leaders retired to a small room on the second floor to 
discuss the big item of business: the creation of a new council to bring 
together Russia and the Nato alliance.

The US and Russia had declared a formal end to the cold war in 1992, but 
Mr Berlusconi saw the creation of the Nato-Russia Council as a chance 
for Italy to host an event where he would star as the 
impresario-in-chief. Mr Putin was wary. Nato was inviting seven members 
of the former Warsaw Pact to join the west’s primary military alliance — 
an act that Moscow would later depict as a provocative challenge to 
Russia’s security interests. Mr Berlusconi played up the new Nato-Russia 
council as a counterbalance to Nato enlargement, and suggested that 
Italy host the treaty signing within weeks. Mr Putin liked the idea.

At that point the two men sat down and telephoned the White House. 
President George W Bush said he would consider the idea of a signing 
summit in Rome at the end of May; he would confirm the meeting not long 
after.

Mr Berlusconi was thrilled. He called his image consultant who in turn 
contacted a team of television producers, stage set designers and 
lighting technicians. To ensure maximum security and a spectacular 
sunset, he chose as the summit location a military base just outside 
Rome called Pratica di Mare.

The set proved worthy of the most lavishly produced TV show. It was 
placed at the centre of a compound complete with anti-missile batteries 
and fighter jets circling above. The atmospherics were even more 
powerful because the summit took place months after the 9/11 terrorist 
attacks. When Mr Putin and Mr Bush arrived at the air base, it was 
locked down.

“I guess of all the things I did in my life, this may be the one I am 
most proud of,” says Mr Berlusconi in an interview at his 70-room villa 
on the outskirts of Milan. “This really was the moment that marked the 
end of the cold war, you know.”

In retrospect, the carefully-choreographed moment looks more like the 
high point in relations between the west and Russia in the post-cold war 
era.

Speaking in the Kremlin, Mr Putin says the creation of the Nato-Russia 
Council “was a positive movement towards building a long-term 
partnership between Russia and Nato. It created the conditions for 
long-term co-operation.

“But, unfortunately, we — and I mean everyone, without shifting the 
blame on to anyone — we failed to take full advantage of the agreement 
that was reached in Italy. The Russia-Nato agreement itself is certainly 
a platform for building relations, but changes were needed in practical 
policies as well and, unfortunately, we have not seen those.”

These conciliatory words do not square with the harsher rhetoric of 
recent years when Mr Putin has often accused the US of being, in effect, 
a rogue nation pursuing regime change in the Middle East and overturning 
the rules of international order. Latterly, however, as economic 
sanctions have begun to bite and Russia’s diplomatic isolation becomes 
more apparent, Mr Putin has sounded more open to dialogue with the west.

Mr Berlusconi, opportunistic as ever, has become a self-appointed go- 
between, occasionally to the consternation and irritation of the Italian 
government now led by Matteo Renzi.

At the end of August 2015, Mr Berlusconi was asked to meet the UN 
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative in Libya, 
Bernardino León. He agreed and later headed off to meet Mr Putin in 
mid-September, his second visit with him in less than three months.

Turning east

With characteristic brio, Mr Berlusconi calls Mr Putin “the Numero Uno” 
of world leaders.

“Vladimir is the exact opposite of the image portrayed of him in the 
western media. He is a really sensitive person, a man of profound 
feelings, always respectful of others. He is very gentle, a man with a 
delicate sensibility.” His voice rising, Mr Berlusconi says he is “in 
total disagreement” with the policies of the EU, the US and Nato on 
sanctioning Russia for its annexation of Crimea and its role in the war 
in eastern Ukraine, where a fragile truce has taken hold.

“The people of Crimea speak Russian and they voted in a referendum to 
rejoin their Mother Russia,” he says. “These sanctions on Russian 
individuals are the wrong policy. Expelling Russia from the G8 is not 
the answer. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the behaviour of western 
leaders over Ukraine could take us back to that isolation of Russia that 
existed before we signed the agreement at Pratica di Mare. Frankly, I 
see a complete lack of leadership in the west at this time.”

No more cold war

Mr Putin, adopting the role of statesman, says Russia will not allow the 
differences it has with the west over Ukraine to drag it back into 
another cold war.

“There are some people who want to drive a wedge between Europe and 
Russia, or Ukraine and Russia. We understand this very well. And at 
times those who pursue such goals succeed. But this only suggests that 
our work is not efficient enough. We will not let anyone drag us into a 
new cold war of any kind. We will not allow that to happen,” Mr Putin says.

With his recent rhetoric and trip to Crimea, Mr Berlusconi seems to have 
broken ranks with the EU and sided openly with the Russian leader. Yet 
Mr Putin says, pointedly, that in the past, when the pressure was on, Mr 
Berlusconi was a reliable team player for Europe and the transatlantic 
alliance, even when he thought the west’s position was wrong.

In the case of Mr Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam 
Hussein, Mr Berlusconi says now that he was aligned with Mr Putin in 
opposition. He says he spoke in private to Mr Bush to dissuade him, but 
then later came out in support of Washington, signing a pro-US letter 
that marked a break with the Germans and the French.

At each other's residences: Berlusconi visited Putin's country lodge and 
Putin played with Dudu the dog in Berlusconi's house©Livio Anticoli; Reuters

At each other's residences: Berlusconi visited Putin's country lodge and 
Putin played with Dudu the dog for the cameras at Berlusconi's house

During the Arab spring and the crisis in Libya in 2011, neither leader 
was in favour of the French- and UK-led bombing of Muammer Gaddafi’s 
regime. Mr Berlusconi warned that regime change in Libya — a former 
Italian colony — would lead to the disintegration of the country, the 
growth of tribal militias and jihadi terrorists. Both he and Mr Putin 
were worried about Libya turning into a failed state in north Africa, a 
potential haven for terrorists and radical Islam — a worry which now 
seems well-founded.

Even today, in Syria, both men claim that Washington’s policies have 
failed to grasp cultural and historical realities.

“These are countries that cannot be governed as democracies in the sense 
we know them,” says Mr Berlusconi. “They have to be governed as a 
regime, with hopefully a benevolent and not bloodthirsty leader. In the 
world of Isis and failed states like Libya and Syria today, that is the 
only way to guarantee stability and peace, with strongmen who will fight 
terrorism.”

Mr Putin intervened this week with fighter jets on behalf of the Syrian 
dictator. His ultimate goals remain unclear, beyond assuring Russia a 
stake in a future endgame in Damascus and a continuing role in the 
Middle East. What is certain is that he can count on Mr Berlusconi to 
make his case.

The writer’s new biography of Silvio Berlusconi is published this month 
by Hachette Books (US), Biteback Publishing (UK) and Rizzoli (Italy)








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