Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dangerous liaisons
There was something profoundly depressing watching the style, expertise and control of the two cavalry squadrons performing on Monday night in Rome. Maybe a hundred horses and riders wheeled charged and feinted in a breathtaking series of manoeuvres, trotting, cantering, galloping in near perfect unison in close order with sabres drawn.
Then the camera cuts to two elderly men for whom the spectacle is being enacted, Muammar Ghedaffi and Silvio Berlusconi. They are enthroned under an awning and the contrast between them and the men and horses they are watching is striking as neither have the style and control of the animals of the carabinieri. It was a show that deserved a more worthy audience.
For the fourth time in just over a year, Ghedaffi was back in Rome. Not surprisingly, most of the comment concentrated on the circus aspect. This time the Libyan Ghedaffi’s inevitable trademark tent was apparently pitched in the embassy grounds. This time, some hundreds of young women were paid to listen to the Colonel extolling the virtues of a rather unorthodox Islam and trying to convert them. The women were somewhere between film extras, “hostesses” and even, according to some accounts “escorts” a very loaded word in today’s Italy.
Whatever they did with Ghedaffi, he outdid his host in numbers at least. Berlusconi’s parties in Palazzo Grazioli are much more limited affairs with a mere twenty or thrity lovelies to listen to his speeches and songs. But their taste in company unites the two men along with the surgical enhancement which both exhibit most visibly.
Aside from the personal foibles, there are very solid national and personal economic interests which they have in common. The visit was meant to celebrate the second anniversary of the 2008 Italo-Libyan treaty. This recompensed Libya for damages incurred under colonial rule (a precedent that Britain and France or even the other colonial powers did not appreciate) but in return gave Italy guarantees of oil and supply contracts and prevented immigrants in transit from reaching Italy. It was a typical piece of realpolitik and no worse than many other deals that Britain and France (or the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Germany) have come to with unsavoury dictators.
The difference is the way that Ghedaffi has been treated by Berlusconi. However embarassing it was for Britain to honour Ceaucescu or Giscard’s France to honour Bokassa, they only did it once, not four times in 15 months. More importantly, neither Queen Elizabeth not Giscard were personal business partners.
Already a year ago, John Hooper in The Guardian pointed out that Berlusconi’s Finivest and Ghedaffi’s Lafitrade were shareholders in the Tunisian media company Quinta Communications..
Before this last visit, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs denied the link which even Berlusconi’s own companies publish “We repeat, there are no relations whatsoever between the prime minister and the business group he created with President Qaddafi or with the Libyan state”.
Apart from the Colonel, Berlusconi has another very equivocal and even closer friendship with Vladimir Putin. Last October, he spent two days with the Russian prime minister accompanied by a single deputy as interpreter. There were no civil servants from the Cabinet office, neither minister for foreign affairs nor economy. No public statements were made as to the nature of the meetings but the business was so important that Berlusconi put off his departure for a day cancelling a longstanding engagement with King Abdullah of Jordan who was on a state visit to Italy. We know about the gas deals with ENI but we have no idea what (if any) private deals Berlusconi has come to. Paolo Guzzanti, a journalist and deputy and formerly loyal supporter, called Berlusconi’s foreign policy “like Louis XIV’s”. With Ghedaffi there are probably no side deals but again we cannot be sure.
Ghedaffi, Putin and Berlusconi are populists who feel that they have an absolute mandate from “the people” and all three make little distinction between what is public and what is their own private interest.
At the risk of being pedantic, it is worth pointing out that Ghedaffi is officially neither head of state or head of government; he was actually introduced as “leader of the revolution”. Berlusconi is head of government but not head of state. Foreign policy is also created out of symbols and theatre and the Ghedaffi Show was excessive by any standards at least in western Europe. It did show once again how Berlusconi’s personal diplomacy trumps Italian interests and good taste.
Next week the Finnish president will be in Rome on a state visit. She is here to promote Finland from Nokia to reindeer ham to Sibelius with Italy for its part wanting to increase economic and cultural relations but I think we can be pretty sure that it will be a low key affair on both sides. She will give a talk at the Accademia de’ Lincei, one of the oldest and most prestigious Italian centres of culture. Her audience will be staid, middle aged and unpaid and she will not be trying to convert anyone. And then there will be a reception at the Finnish Academy with the Italian head of state, President Napolitano. Villa Lante is one of the most beautiful of the foreign academies and the one with the best view but there will be no reindeer cavalcades on the Janiculum.
Quite apart from the impropriety of giving full honours to a dictator and allowing him to use Rome as his own private Disneyland (as the Fini thinktank, FareFuturo said), it is also a dangerous and counterproductive policy even without taking morals and human rights into account. Ghedaffi’s attempts to proseletise have alienated the Vatican and the Northern League neither of which are keen on a Muslim Italy. His treatment of immigrants trying to reach Italy also goes against Church policy. As for the economic interests, given Ghedaffi’s age and the uncertainty of his succession, it might not be good for Italy to be seen to be too close to Ghedaffi personally. And even in the short term, there are many Italian business people and economists who are nervous at the idea of Ghedaffi being a majority shareholder in major Italian financial institutions and businesses.
It is interesting that FareFuturo has explicitly asked Berlusconi to clarify his relationship with both Putin and Ghedaffi. After all, its sponsor, Gianfranco Fini, was foreign minister for a time. This does not bode well for the government’s future – for the moment the warring factions for August have decided that discretion is the better part of valour. Berlusconi does not want to risk a fight with Napolitano in order to call early elections and he does not want to risk being overtaken by Bossi and the League if there are elections. Fini is bruised after the Berlusconi press attacks with more revelations threatened and he is not at all sure that he could fight an elections at short notice. So for the moment, Berlusconi will have his vote of confidence in September but the future is anything but clear.

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