NM’s polyglot European media correspondent Charles McPhedran has been following media in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian to keep you up to date with news beyond the Anglosphere. This week: the fortunes of Silvio Berlusconi. Will the combination of prosecutors and protestors see Berlusconi out of office? And what impact have the protests on the other side of the Mediterranean had?
Now that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, which domino will fall next? Will it be Bahrain, where there have been tanks on the streets? Morocco, where nationwide protests began on the 20th of February? Will it be Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi has employed mercenaries to try and hold down a popular revolt?
Or will the next domino to fall be Silvio Berlusconi, the tottering septugenarian playboy, who’s to be arraigned before three Milanese judges in April?
Although Berlusconi allegedly bought off the legislators, according to this story in Spanish daily Publico, and survived a confidence vote in parliament last December, a survey published by the Roman daily Repubblica last week found that one in four centre-left opponents of Berlusconi thinks that Italy can take the Egyptian route to regime change.
The Demos survey seems to show a remarkable degree of cynicism about the outcome of il caso Ruby. While 58 per cent of Italians believe that Berlusconi is guilty of the charges against him, almost all of those (52 per cent) think he won’t be found guilty in the April trial. Nor do Italians believe that the current protests — such as those held by the "women in white" last weekend — are enough to make Berlusconi quit. It seems that the Italian head of state, Giorgio Napolitano, broadly shares these views: he told German paper the Welt am Sonntag yesterday that Berlusconi "has the means to defend himself" against the charges.
The US State Department also thinks Berlusconi’s opposition is "too disorganised" to depose him, according to Wikileaks cables released on the weekend. Yet they’d be serving the national interest if they were to succeed: diplomats believe that Berlusconi’s ongoing tribulations have lent Italy "an unfortunately comical reputation in Europe and amongst large parts of the US government," according to news magazine L’espresso, which has secured a new tranche of cables related to Italy.
However, the magazine continues, Berlusconi’s continual scandals have proved advantageous to the United States, as he trips over himself to prove himself "the best ally", an "eager collaborator" and a "friend" in exchange for a little praise and a few photo-ops. Among the US gains: tenure security for the most important military base outside the US in Vincenza, which oversees US operations in Africa and the Middle East, and unexpectedly large offers of troops for the war in Afghanistan.
Berlusconi has also proved a loyal friend to a number of North African dictators in his time. Recall what he had to say just a fortnight ago about Hosni Mubarak, the "wise" leader and steadfast friend of the West, who he apparently took to be the uncle of bunga bunga buddy Ruby.
In Tunisia, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, along with providing occasional retirement homes to crooked Italian politicians on the run — like Benito Craxi — hosted a joint business run by Berlusconi and the Gadaffi family, according to Colombian newspaper el Tiempo.
These joint interests shouldn’t surprise anyone: as earlier Wikileaks cables showed, only Berlusconi’s friendship with Vladamir Putin rivals his bromance with Gaddafi. Libya was once Italy’s most important colony, and Gaddafi signed a treaty of cooperation with Italy in 2008, according to the terms of which Berlusconi was to build a Mediterranean motorway running along the Libyan coast (among other infrastructure projects) in exchange for Gaddafi’s help in preventing refugee flows reaching Europe from North Africa.
It’s the threat of large refugee influxes which Berlusconi has now been invoking in response to the uprising in his friend’s state. "Specialists" in the Italian interior ministry fear an "invasion" of "hundreds" of refugees if Gaddafi falls, reported the conservative Correire della Sera on Sunday, a fear which Berlusconi has also invoked when discussing the situation in Libya.
It is this fear — of the brown hordes from the south — that has started to influence coverage of the Middle East in the European papers. Like Australia’s Christmas Island, the Italian island of Lampedusa is a sand speck off the northern coast of Africa, under 20 square kilometres in size. This week, the island’s usual population — 5000 — has doubled thanks to boats carrying refugees fleeing from Tunisia. Most of these boats left from the Tunisian port city of Zarzis, reports the weekly Courrier International, which profiles those leaving for Europe: "arriving from small villages at the interior of Tunisia … they are day labourers paid 80 euros a month, graduates who’ve not worked more than six months over the last ten years… equally, they are all collateral damage incurred by an economic system fundamentally criminal," run by the president’s family.
The arrival of these miserable few thousand people has alarmed the Italian government, which has dramatically accused the EU of abandoning Italy to deal with the refugees, says Rio’s o Globo. The paper adds that the Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni and Berlusconi will personally try to find places to house the refugees during a forthcoming state visit.
For the Hamburg-based social democratic weekly Zeit, the Italian government’s statements about the situation on Lampedusa are exaggerated: the fact that the island is so small, means that an impression of an "exodus of biblical proportions" can easily be provoked by Berlusconi. The communist French paper Humanité also quotes Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni warning of "terrorists … escaped from Tunisian prisons" among the immigrants, language reminiscent of Australia’s refugee debates.
Unfortunately for Berlusconi, however, the spectre of immigrant hordes invading the south of Europe is still not as sexy as stories about nightclub dancer Ruby Rubacouri (loosely translated as Ruby the Heartbreaker). When German tabloid Bild interviewed her on the weekend, the dancer admitted that she used some of 7000 euros that Berlusconi gave her to have an abortion — although she says the father of the child was a gigolo, and not il Cavaliere. Having contradicted her previous public statements throughout the chat with Bild, she ends the interview to take a call from a 78 year old Austrian construction magnate, who wants to take her to a Viennese ball.
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