ROME – On the Web site of the Italian Foreign Ministry, Tunisia is praised for its “ideal features” and “political and social stability.” After the popular upheaval that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power, the peril of supporting Arab autocrats in exchange for flimsy stability should have once again become apparent to Western powers. In Italy, however, the Tunisian uprising is also a painful reminder of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s tangle of conflicting private and public interests.
Many Italians remember that Ben Ali – whose rise to the presidency was directly supported by Italy – provided refuge to Bettino Craxi, the former Italian prime minister (and Berlusconi’s political mentor), who fled the country in 1994 to avoid conviction on corruption charges. Craxi died and is buried in the Tunisian holiday resort of Hammamet.
More recently, the Tunisian connection has come up in relation to one of the murkiest dossiers associated with Berlusconi’s foreign policy: Libya. In September 2009, The Guardian published an article about a company, Quinta Communications SA, owned by a Tunisian-born entrepreneur and long-time business associate of Berlusconi, Tarak Ben Ammar. The article alleged that Quintais partly controlled by a company owned by the Berlusconi family’s investment vehicle and partly by a holding company controlled by the Gaddafi family’s investment arm. The implication that Berlusconi and Gaddafi indirectly co-own Quinta has not been refuted.
Were Berlusconi only a tycoon, such reports would not raise many eyebrows. After all, Libyan financial institutions have been investing in Italy for decades. Were Berlusconi only a statesman, one could argue that realpolitik is a justifiable prerogative of a sovereign state: strategic considerations often trump the pursuit of more noble goals, such as promotion of human rights. As Berlusconi bluntly put it, closer relations with Libya are about “fewer illegal immigrants and more oil.”
The trouble with Berlusconi is that the corporate empire that he owns, which ranges from media and publishing to insurance and advertising, can conceivably affect key foreign-policy issues. And when sensitive questions like immigration and energy security are in play, his government’s foreign policy can have an impact on other countries’ citizens, too.
Indeed, a rather straightforward pattern emerges from the American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks so far. American diplomats, it turns out, also have reservations about Berlusconi’s relations with Russia. They express concern at the “frequently non-transparent” business dealings between the two countries, and allege that many of Berlusconi’s “business cronies” are deeply involved in Russia’s energy strategy. The United States Ambassador at the time is repeatedly quoted as suggesting that Berlusconi has a “financially enriching relationship” with the Kremlin.
Such allegations can of course be disputed, and Berlusconi was quick to laugh them off. But the underlying question, whether Italy is trustworthy or not, cannot be dismissed so easily.
Just as US diplomats have done, the rest of the international community has a right to speculate about the Berlusconi family business’s international priorities; about whether these priorities are influencing Italy's foreign policy; and about how Berlusconi can show that they are not. Berlusconi’s undisputed survival skills, and the acrobatics of his personal life, have relegated the outside world from the attention of most Italians. But rarely has a Western country’s foreign policy been so exposed to its prime minister’s private interests.
Italy’s conflict of interest could damage more than the trust of its allies. It could undermine the credibility of Europe’s stated emphasis on the promotion of the rule of law and strengthen the charge of double standards that is so often leveled against Western policies. As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was reported to have quipped when confronted with routine European criticism on corruption and organized crime, “Mafia is not a Russian word.”
Anyone with access to YouTube can view the 1986 footage of Berlusconi being interviewed in one of his network’s studios by veteran journalist (and later vocal opponent) Enzo Biagi. Beneath a map of Cold War Europe, the then-entrepreneur boasts about the successes of his companies. In closing the interview, he asserts that the expansion of his television channels abroad will be pivotal to the unification of Europe.
Even if this plan has not been realized, the rationale behind it should be of no little concern to Italy’s international partners.