US cables cloud Berlusconi talks in Russia
Silvio Berlusconi met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday under a cloud of revelations that Washington was growing increasingly anxious about the Italian prime minister's ties to Moscow.
The leaked US cable disclosures forced both leaders to address poignant assessments of a relationship that Washington believes has worked to the detriment of both the European Union and the United States.
Medvedev said cables quoting sources who felt he played "Robin to (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin's Batman" showed the "cynicism" of Washington's thinking.
"We are not paranoid. We do not tie Russia-US relations to any leaks. But at the same time, these are indicative," said Medvedev said in televised remarks.
"They show the entire extent of the cynicism of these evaluations, these judgements, that prevail in the various governments' foreign policies -- and in this case I am talking about the United States."
Berlusconi brushed off uncomfortable allegations about his ties to "his fellow 'tycoon'" Putin as meaningless notes written by unqualified bureaucrats.
"They take the first thing they see on the front page of a newspaper and transform it into a super-important-looking diplomatic cable," Berlusconi said through a Russian translator.
Yet it was Berlusconi's relations with Putin that appeared to excite Washington's interest most.
Berlusconi was described as acting as Putin's "mouthpiece" and "profiting personally and handsomely" in exchange.
"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 in Rome wrote.
US officials said this bond has proven 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."
These fears were expressed personally by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a document entitled 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 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 remained unclear was "how much coordination occurs between ENI and the Russian political structures."
Medvedev said South Stream and broader energy cooperation were one of the first issues on Friday's agenda. He provided no details but confirmed that Italy remained a "strategic ally" that would broaden its energy involvement with Russia.
Berlusconi also took pains to paint Russia as a trustworthy partner that merited an equal say and respect. He said Medvedev's recent performance at a NATO summit in Lisbon proved that "Russia was a member of the Western civilisation."
© 2010 AFP