US diplomats voiced concern over Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ties to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the grip of energy interests on Rome’s foreign policy, according to cables made public by WikiLeaks.
The whistleblowing Web site had previously given a flavor of the US view of Berlusconi, described in extracts as Putin’s “mouthpiece,” but what appears to be a full cable from the US embassy in Rome, published on Thursday, gives a lengthier depiction of Italy as in thrall to Moscow.
The WikiLeaks revelations have increased pressure on Berlusconi, weakened by months of scandals and party infighting. He faces a no-confidence vote in parliament this month, which could topple his center-right government.
“A foreign policy designed to deny Russia nothing” is the headline on one section of the cable from last year, which highlighted the powerful role of oil and gas group ENI and suggesting Berlusconi and associates may have profited from energy deals with Russia.
The cable says Berlusconi sidelined Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini almost entirely, going directly to Putin with whom he exchanged “lavish gifts” and considered he had a personal bond.
“The basis of the friendship is hard to determine but many interlocutors have told us that Berlusconi believes that Putin, a fellow ‘tycoon,’ trusts Berlusconi more than any other European leader,” the cable from US Ambassador Ronald Spogli read.
Other cables have included comments on Berlusconi’s taste for “partying hard” and the physical toll it took, prompting denials by the prime minister’s lawyer Niccolo Ghedini, who said the accounts were just recycled gossip from left-wing newspapers.
One referred to his ducking out of a state visit by the Jordanian king, giving the impression “he was husbanding his flagging energies for a blow-out party at Putin’s private dacha.”
Spogli’s cable said Berlusconi’s aides were reluctant to challenge him but even some members of his own PDL party had expressed concern over his “giddiness about Putin.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has this week gone out of her way to placate Berlusconi. In an earlier cable, a US diplomat said he was dismissed by many as “feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader.”
However, the leaked document shows serious concern that Berlusconi, who irritated Washington with his support for Moscow during the 2008 South Ossetia War, was working “overtime” within the EU on Moscow’s behalf.
“His overwhelming desire is to remain in Putin’s good graces, and he has frequently voiced opinions and declarations that have been passed to him directly by Putin,” the cable said.
Berlusconi, who has been in Kazakhstan for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said Italy’s relationship with Washington would not be affected by the reports and he denied any improper behavior.
“The United States knows very well that I have absolutely no interests with any other country, that there are no personal interests at all but that I have only acted with the interests of Italians and my country at heart,” he was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as saying.
Leaked cables have highlighted the role allegedly played by Valentino Valentini, a Russian-speaking member of parliament who operated as Berlusconi’s “key man on Russia.”