Yesterday, October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrated his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’re spending a few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world. Today: the one and only Silvio Berlusconi.
When it was reported in late July, the news doubtless caused some people to scratch their scalps in wonderment. Vladimir Putin, it emerged, had invited Silvio Berlusconi – the 79-year-old media tycoon and three-time Italian prime minister – to become Russia’s economy minister.
No, Putin didn’t expect Berlusconi to accept, and Berlusconi had no intention of doing so. The offer was just a private joke, intended as a gesture of solidarity and friendship at a time when both men are on the outs with almost every other Western head of government – Putin because of his military adventurism and saber-rattling and Berlusconi because of his sordid scandals and court cases involving underage sex, corruption, tax evasion, and so on.
But the cameraderie between the two men isn’t new. Putin and Berlusconi are old buddies. A recent article in an Italian daily was headlined “Berlusconi and Putin: An Enduring Love.” Their “bromance,” as Adam Taylor called it in a recent Washington Post article about the relationship, “was cemented in the summer of 2002 when Putin’s two teenage daughters spent a month at Berlusconi’s summer residence in Porto Rotondo. The following year, Putin’s entire family visited.”
Since then they’ve socialized frequently, vacationed together on the Black Sea, in Sardinia, and elsewhere, exchanged lavish presents, partied, skied, strolled, and sung à deux, pulled schoolboy pranks on each other, played host to each other’s spouses and kids, frolicked with each other’s pets, and praised and defended and applauded each other in the media when everyone else in the Western world’s executive mansions and foreign offices was piling on.
Berlusconi, who has been described as having a “strange fascination for Putin,” has called Putin a “macho” guy and a “good boy” and a “godsend” to the people of Russia; Putin has expressed admiration for Berlusconi’s reputation as a ladies’ man, saying, when Berlusconi was on trial two years ago on sex charges, that if his Italian chum “were homosexual, no one would lay a finger on him.” Each of them has cut short meetings or changed appointments with powerful international personages in order to hang out with or take a call from the other. It’s that kind of friendship.
What’s the secret of their mutual attraction? Taylor cites their shared “pro-business, pro-power outlook” as well as their similar personalities: they’re “manly men on a continent of gray, dull eurocrats.” Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Center in Moscow puts it a tad differently: “They’re corporate, ruthless, willing to screw principles.” In early 2009, Ronald Spogli, then U.S. Ambassador to Italy, wrote a nine-page memo about the curious bond between the two, observing that Berlusconi “admires Putin’s macho style of governing and sees in his Russian friend a ‘fellow tycoon.’”
Their friendship is, of course, also a power alliance. While Berlusconi was PM of Italy, he personally made all government decisions relating to Russia, repeatedly leaving his own diplomatic corps entirely out of the loop. After Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Il Cavaliere was quick to stand up for him and to call the G8 “reckless” for banning him from their sodality; this past June, he promised his pal that the Forza Italia party (of which he remains capo di tutti capi) would fight to lift Western sanctions on Mother Russia.
Not unsurprisingly, the unusual intimacy of this adorable twosome has occasioned a good deal of international chn-scratching. In a 2010 article in Der Spiegel, appropriately entitled “Macho Friends,” Gregor Peter Schmitz wrote that the two men’s “close relationship” was “a source of unease for the US State Department.” In cables made public by WikiLeaks, American diplomats described Berlusconi as “increasingly the mouthpiece” of Putin in Europe.
In addition, those cables raised the possibility that the two mates might also share clandestine business and financial ties. According to one dispatch by Spogli, many Italian politicians and foreign diplomats were convinced, during Berlusconi’s years in office, that he was “profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia.” A Georgian ambassador to Italy suggested that Putin had promised his Italian buddy a “percentage of profits from any pipelines” developed jointly by Russia’s Gazprom and Italy’s Eni.
But, hey, what’s a little graft between friends?