Berlusconi in Russia amid revelations of US concern
Silvio Berlusconi met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday amid revelations from leaked US cables of growing anxiety in Washington about the Italian prime minister's ties to Moscow.
The talks were to be the seventh between Berlusconi and a Russian president, most of which came during Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's two terms as head of state.
And it was Berlusconi's relations with his close personal friend Putin that appeared to spark the greatest US concern in documents revealed this week by WikiLeaks.
The anxieties were expressed both by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the US embassy in Rome. One cable lists a set of questions she forwarded in a document titled a "request for information on Italy-Russia relations."
Clinton asked about the basis of the leaders' friendship and whether the Italian government had "made decisions to benefit Italian business or commercial interests at the expense of political concerns about energy policy."
That question appeared aimed at ENI, the partially state-owned Italian energy giant that has been picked as a partner by Russia for lucrative natural gas projects, including the South Stream pipeline rivalling the US-backed Nabucco plan.
One US cable said that "ENI's presence in Russia exceeds that of Italy's understaffed embassy." It added that "What is unclear is how much coordination occurs between ENI and the Russian political structures."
The Kremlin said energy and economic cooperation would be high on Friday's agenda and that South Stream would feature prominently in the talks.
The two sides were also expected to discuss Russia's missile shield proposal for Europe that has been championed by Berlusconi but looked on with scepticism by both Washington and NATO.
Berlusconi has come in for criticism in other US cables highlighting his lifestyle and contacts with leaders on frosty terms with Washington.
A source in the Italian government told the media that Berlusconi had a "good laugh" about the lifestyle allegations.
But it was his bond to "fellow tycoon" Putin that appears to have drawn the greatest US attention.
The two leaders were reported to have talked on a daily basis during Russia's 2008 war in Georgia, a five-day offensive that drew a furious initial Western response, and Berlusconi was believed to have more contact with Putin than any other leader in the world.
"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 leader," the US embassy wrote.
"His overwhelming desire is to remain in Putin's good graces, and he has frequently voiced opinion and declarations that have been passed to him directly by Putin," the cable said of the Italian prime minister.
US officials said the policy proved beneficial to Italy in trade terms and useful to Berlusconi personally as he establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with by Washington and an important interlocutor for the EU.
Italian foreign policy is "highly receptive to Russian efforts to gain greater political influence in the EU and to support Russia's efforts to dilute American security interests in Europe," the Rome embassy cable said.
"A not insignificant factor is PM Berlusconi's desire to be seen as an important European player on foreign policy, leading him to go where others dare not."
© 2010 AFP