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Silvio Berlusconi: Poor Silvio

... he's spent only one day on his yacht in the last two years. He hasn't set foot inside his house in Bermuda for three. In between running three TV stations, a national newspaper, magazines and AC Milan he has a 'terrible job' running the country ? and fending off corruption charges. And why? To protect Italy from the communists, of course ...

By Peter Popham

11 May 2003

Thanks to the rotating EU presidency that Italy assumes on 1 July, the rest of Europe is about to get an immersion course in what it is like to have Silvio Berlusconi as a leader.

There was a disturbing taster last Monday, when, three years after the start of his criminal trial in Milan for bribing judges, Berlusconi made his maiden intervention in the proceedings.

The 45-minute speech was a gem of Berlusconiana, a small masterpiece of pride, spleen and evasiveness. One might have imagined that he had finally showed up in court after all this time to rebut the serious criminal charges against him - charges similar to those which saw his close friend, colleague and personal lawyer, Cesare Previti, sentenced to 11 years in jail two weeks ago. But he made no reference to his guilt or innocence in the matter. Instead, he told the judges that other people had done bad things. He hinted that they should go after Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission and an old political enemy, or perhaps Giuliano Amato, another ex-prime minister who serves under Giscard D'Estaing on the commission that is drawing up a European constitution.

It was an entirely destructive performance. Berlusconi did nothing to shift the black cloud of suspicion hanging over him. He drew a powerful international spotlight on to a case that portrays Italy's richest man as capable of seedy and cynical deals, corrupting the institution of the judiciary - a case that has been puttering on largely unregarded by the outside world since 2000.

And by gratuitously dragging Prodi and Amato into his discourse and making nasty insinuations about them, he made it immensely difficult for Italy, and himself, to make a success of the six-month presidency. The great dream of Berlusconi was that Italy's presidency should culminate in a new Treaty of Rome, successor to the one of 1948 that brought the European Community into existence. By poisoning relations with Prodi, Berlusconi has made that far less likely to happen.

Europe got an appalling glimpse of a man who seems to have no hesitation in bending political and judicial events to fit his personal agenda. At a time when the EU is still licking its wounds after the divisions over Iraq, when 10 new countries are lining up to join and a European constitution is on the anvil, what the union needs at the helm is a far-seeing statesman with seasoned diplomatic skills. What they are getting is the man Italians call Il Cavaliere, "the Cavalier".

Born in Milan in 1936, the son of a bank clerk, Berlusconi made his first fortune as a property developer, then became a pioneer of commercial television. His leap into politics 10 years ago came after political and business circles in Milan had been decimated by corruption cases.

Dogged for years by criminal charges that could bring him down, Berlusconi has made saving his skin the subject of his government over the past two years. A raft of laws and other measures have been rammed through parliament, whose object - whatever his claims to the contrary - has been to get Berlusconi off the hook.

These include a law on judicial co-operation with foreign jurisdictions, making it more difficult for, say, evidence about Swiss bank accounts to be used in an Italian court; a law degrading false accounting from a criminal to a civil offence; and a law enabling cases to be moved from one jurisdiction to another if Italy's highest court agrees there is "legitimate suspicion" that the original judges are biased.

But none of these wheezes has done the trick, so Berlusconi's latest gambit is to bring in parliamentary immunity, which would have the effect of freezing all the cases against him.

Urgent legislation to deal, for example, with the pensions mess and growing economic problems has been put on hold while Berlusconi dedicates himself to putting himself out of the law's reach. His logic is exquisitely circular: he is Italy's democratically elected leader; the "communists" who, he says, control the courts, are out to get him. If the courts secured a conviction he would be in big trouble; ergo, for the survival of Italian democracy, the courts must be thwarted, and radically shaken up.

But what if he is guilty of the crimes he is accused of? That is the question he never answers, that he never even allows himself to be asked.

Like other very powerful leaders, like indeed Ceaucescu, to whom a protester outside the court compared him on Monday, Berlusconi has created a life in which all that surrounds him reflects his own glory. His ownership of three Italian television stations (and his de facto control of the state broadcaster, RAI), of Italy's biggest publisher, a daily newspaper and a weekly news magazine make this quite easy to achieve.

When a back view of him in court appeared last week on the cover of his weekly magazine Panorama, his bald patch was retouched to give him a full head of hair. When he submitted to a pre-recorded interview, broadcast on RAI on Friday, the questions were so soft that another journalist on the programme told the interviewer, "You did this interview on your knees". Another participant said, "This was a party political broadcast."

Berlusconi has arranged his world so that everything in it reflects his brilliance, his energy, his wealth and power. And perhaps the secret of his enduring popularity among Italy's silent majority - which seems undimmed - is that enough of that glory bounces back on to his country for the consumers of his TV programmes and magazines to bask in. His football team, AC Milan, which has an important derby with Inter-Milan on Tuesday, has been one of the best in Europe for years. His second wife is a noted beauty. His home outside Milan is a fabulous villa. His yacht, his homes dotted in elegant locations around the world, all keep afloat - for those not interested in asking tricky questions - an ideal image of Italy and Italians.

Within this glittering edifice there is only one thing wrong, one ugly patch, one jarring note, one stain that threatens to spread and spoil the whole picture: the judiciary. And it's because of those judges that the richest man in Italy asks us an amazing thing. He asks us to pity him.

He spelled it out last week in an interview with the New York Times. "It's a great sacrifice to do what I'm doing," he told Frank Bruni. "I'm not having fun at all. I have a sailing boat, but in two years I've only been on it for one day. And I haven't been in my house in Bermuda for two or three years .... My life has changed. The quality has become terrible, with a terrible job." The reason why he accepted these hardships, he explained, was that he had entered politics in 1993 to keep communists at bay and prevent leftists from subverting Italian democracy. "Otherwise," he said, "there would be no freedom left in Italy."

But still they come at him: despite his healthy majority in parliament, his immense power and wealth, his control of the media, still this devilish enemy continues to seek him out. Last week, the centre-left leader Franceso Rutelli voiced a fear that is rapidly growing among the opposition: that Italy is slipping into a dictatorship. "We're under a regime," he said. On Friday, Berlusconi commented: "We are indeed under a regime, but it is against me ... the fighting and politicised judges are a cancer that must be extirpated."

But Berlusconi is not paranoid: they really are out to get him. They want to know the answers to some simple questions. Did your company, Fininvest, pay bribes of 200m lira (£75,000) to Roman judges in 1985? If not, how do you explain the movement of funds totalling that amount from Fininvest accounts to those of the judges? And if that's not a crime, what is?

Also in Profiles

Silvio Berlusconi: Poor Silvio
John Humphrys: National treasure or the rudest man in Britain?
Tony Parsons: You Ask The Questions
Dylan Moran: Don't make me laugh
Zandra Rhodes: Zandra's show home

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