Berlusconi’s Private Diplomacy

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.”