Norms and Values
Russia's Friend: Remembering Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi never traded Italy’s national interests for the sake of Russia, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov. The reason is that even the most irreconcilable opponents of Berlusconi, when they came to power instead of him, continued the same policy of dialogue and cooperation with Russia as Silvio Berlusconi did.

On June 12, 2023, Silvio Berlusconi, one of the most controversial and at the same time brightest Italian politicians, passed away. The last thirty years in the political history of Italy have passed largely under his activities, as well as the struggle against him by his opponents both in Italy and in the EU as a whole. Berlusconi was prime minister three times: in 1994-95, in 2001-2006 and in 2008-2011. Two times out of three, his tenure ended early, in the midst of scandals and coalition breakups. But he was elected again and again. The number of different criminal cases connected with him also increased over time. Nevertheless, as a rule, he managed to get away with it. Figures were sometimes cited that Berlusconi’s total expenses for lawyers over his entire life amounted to a whopping 700 million euros. The hypocritical legal community, of course, was only glad to have such a client.

From my own impressions and conversations with Italians during trips to that country in previous times, it was clear that Italy is very rigidly divided in its attitude towards Berlusconi. A significant number of Italians can’t stand the sight of him, considering him a horror and a shame for Italy. As a rule, these are people with left-progressive views, a large segment of university professors, and many journalists. On the other hand, an equally tangible number of Italians, according to subjective perceptions, spoke positively about him. These, as a rule, were small business-owners — a very numerous and significant social stratum in Italy. The specifics of this country in comparison with other large states in Western Europe consists of a much larger number of small and medium-sized enterprises, both in percentage terms and in absolute figures. Berlusconi objectively reflected their interests.

Many ordinary people, on the whole, were supportive of him. Not that he was attractive to them himself. However, they believed that Berlusconi’s straightforward cynicism was, in its own way, more honest than the usual hypocrisy on the part of his opponents, lasting years and decades. Many doubted that they are less corrupt than Berlusconi.

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It was probably this factor that played a key role in Berlusconi’s initial triumphant intrusion into Italian politics in 1994. Then a huge political scandal erupted in the country, connected with systemic corruption and connections with the mafia of all political parties of the previous era, except for the communists. One of the then-prime ministers of the country escaped from Italian justice to Tunisia, while another was able to get the post of senator for life, which gave him immunity from persecution. It should be noted that the specificity of the Italian political system during the Cold War consisted, in our subjective opinion, in one simple principle: everything is possible for the sake of containing the communists. Since the time of the anti-fascist resistance, the Italian Communist Party has enjoyed great confidence on the part of voters, in almost all parliamentary elections it has gained 25-35% of the votes, and the term “red belt”, familiar to many Russians, first appeared not in Yeltsin’s Russia in the 90s, but in Italy during that period of the Cold War.

Although relations between the Italian Communist Party and the CPSU were, to put it mildly, not quite simple during the Brezhnev period, these differences were not noticed in the West. The coming to power of the Communists in a NATO member country during the Cold War was perceived as one of the most terrible and unthinkable threats to the unity of the Western bloc. Therefore, in the name of solving this main task, they turned a blind eye to everything else. But when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, and the main part of the leadership of the Italian Communist Party extremely quickly and also extremely hypocritically made its own “perestroika”, abandoning all communist ideas in their ideology and programme, there was no longer anyone to restrain. In this situation, in 1992, the floodgates broke through in Italian politics, and a whole system of communication between the state and the criminals, covered for years by the country’s leading politicians, was opened. This anti-corruption campaign was called “Clean Hands”, and it swept away almost all of the then leadership of the country. For two years Italy had a technical government, essentially a power vacuum.

Against this background, Berlusconi came and took power. He was supported by the majority of voters. To repeat, his straightforward cynicism and implicit corruption of a businessman and media magnate seemed to the Italians more honest and, undoubtedly, much more trustworthy than the crocodile tears of his opponents. Then the same effect worked twice more in subsequent elections.

These features of Berlusconi’s character and political position can be said to determine the foundations of his attitude towards Russia. As an experienced and cynical businessman, Berlusconi was immediately open to conduct no less direct and cynical business with Russia, free from any kind of ethical equivocation and moralisation. Moreover, business was both commercial and political. It is no coincidence that Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister of the Yeltsin era, long before Putin, seemed to have the authorship of the phrase: “Berlusconi is our best friend.” During his first premiership, Berlusconi did much to lobby for Russia to admit it to the G7 and the Council of Europe. The latter, however, had to be postponed due to the outbreak of hostilities in Chechnya at the end of 1994.

During his second stint in office, in 2001-2006, both Berlusconi himself and the negotiators close to him played a significant, albeit non-public, role in restoring the dialogue between Russia and the United States, which had been frozen after the NATO Kosovo campaign in 1999. Naturally, Italian mediation between Moscow and Washington, and between Putin and Bush, should not be overestimated. It played a role in the fact that Bush eventually, as he said, looked into Putin’s eyes and believed him. As a result, in that era of “pragmatism” in Russian foreign policy, Moscow supported the US in Afghanistan, agreed to open a transit point in Ulyanovsk to supply NATO troops there, and also did not become too vocal about the second wave of NATO expansion. It was relatively calm about the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty. Who knows, if it wasn’t for this cynical mediation by Berlusconi and his people, perhaps history would have turned out differently. In his third tenure in 2008, Berlusconi played a big role in the EU’s relatively mild reaction to Russia’s recognition of the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Against this background, Berlusconi, again due to his nature, became not only a political partner, but also an informal friend for the Russian leadership. His informal trips to Siberia and other such meetings became famous. Of the Western leaders at that time, perhaps only Prince Albert of Monaco was at the same level of informal interaction with the Russian leadership, with the same trips to Siberia as Berlusconi. The Italian media then enjoyed Berlusconi’s photos and remarks about these informal meetings. Not all of these details were reproduced in the Russian media. Therefore, the Italian-speaking Russian experts at that time, let’s say figuratively, had information from a slightly different angle about these meetings.

Does this mean that the cynic Berlusconi traded Italy’s national interests for the sake of Russia? Quite a natural question in the current context, but the answer is: “No.” The reason is that even the most irreconcilable opponents of Berlusconi, when they came to power instead of him, continued the same policy of dialogue and cooperation with Russia as Silvio Berlusconi did, except perhaps for trips to Siberia. The then Italian governments without exception believed that partnership with Russia was in the interests of Italy, in economic terms (stable supplies of cheap hydrocarbons under long-term contracts, the expanding and increasingly solvent Russian market for Italian goods and services, an opportunity for Italian small businesses to work in Russia, the influx of solvent Russian tourists to Italy, etc.). From the political point of view, closer ties with Russia were a plus, not a minus for strengthening the role of Italy in European and global politics. For example, in 2000, when expelling Russia from the Council of Europe was discussed for the first time because of the second military campaign in Chechnya, the issue was resolved in favour of Russia largely thanks to Italy, which then chaired this structure. Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s direct opponents were in power in Italy at that time.

All Italian governments essentially continued this policy, even after Crimea’s reunification with Russia in 2014. The Italian prime ministers of that time were among the few Western leaders who came to Russia, not only for negotiations on Ukraine, but also for the development of bilateral ties, to make a speech at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, etc. This approach changed dramatically only on February 24, 2022. That is why, in our subjective opinion, February 24 was a shock for Silvio Berlusconi. This shock was fully read in his statements of that period, in his attempts to get through to the Kremlin in order to stop the conflict. But during this period, the Kremlin no longer picked up the phone in response to Berlusconi’s calls. In our opinion, this can be considered a symbol of the personal and political tragedy of all those Western politicians who, being undoubtedly patriots of their respective countries, advocated dialogue with Russia precisely on the basis of its national interests. Their calls, after a tipping point, went unanswered.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed deep condolences regarding the death of Silvio Berlusconi.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.