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“Il Professore” Cowers before the Russian Bear

Poor Romano Prodi. His victory over Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition last year brought such high hopes to Italy after five years of disastrous government, and only nine months later, after having his resignation rejected, he barely won a vote of confidence in Parliament to keep his job. Putin / Prodi “The Russian president and I share the aspiration to establish solid ties between Rome and Moscow, and between Russia and Europe,” Prodi said.

Perhaps it is because of his weakened state that “Il Professore” Prodi neglected to stand up to Russia to defend the interests of the Italian people this week. Instead, the prime minister put on a tap-dancing show rivaled only by the inimitable rent-a-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

With the deaths of Anna Politkovskaya, Andrei Kozlov, Alexander Litvinenko, and Ivan Safronov all fresh in our memories, Mr. Prodi gushes with enthusiasm about his desire to get closer to Russia:

“This summit is the best evidence of (the existence of) a strategic partnership between Italy and Russia,” Prodi said in a joint press conference with Putin.

With the continued plunder of Yukos, new fraudulent charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the extortion of Royal Dutch Shell at Sakhalin, pipeline supply cutoffs, the squeeze on BP at Kovykta, and now the attack on PwC all still smoldering with blatant illegality, Mr. Prodi chooses this moment to triumphantly celebrate a whole raft of business agreements, including fighter jets, helicopters, and of course energy deals. In the context of ever worsening human rights violations in Chechnya, a recent rigged regional election featuring a “managed” political opposition, and an escalating arms trade with unpredictable autocracies of the international community, “Il Professore” offered no criticism, failed to stand up for basic values, and in effect lent his signature of endorsement to the current Russian methodology. But perhaps the enfeebled prime minister isn’t the proper focal point of this week’s summit at Bari. Also in attendence were Paolo Scaroni of ENI and Alexei Miller of Gazprom, who together have one of the largest gas import contracts from Russia to Europe. Aside from Italy being Russia’s third largest trading partner (totalling $27.7 billion in 2006), ENI is also Gazprom’s largest single client. By all appearances, Prodi was dispatched to Bari to speak not on behalf of Italian citizens, but on behalf of ENI. At a post-summit press conference, he said “…ENI and Gazprom work well together. And the existing agreement provides that they will continue their activities within the wide range of cooperation the two companies are engaged in.” Vladimir Putin responded by saying “If a company such as ENI wants to expand its sphere of activities, including investment activities in Russia, then we will only welcome this. As far as I know, ENI is interested in doing so and considering the very positive experience of cooperation between our major energy companies and ENI, then I think that these plans can be realised. You know that Gazprom and ENI have signed the corresponding agreement. In my opinion, they act as literal proof of the possibility of implementing the principles contained in the Energy Charter.” (In my opinion, the “literal proof” of the Energy Charter would be Russia’s signature!) While it is clear how Italy’s enthusiasm to become Russia’s No. 1 non-critical partner is devastating to the prospects of political reforms for Russian citizens, one may ask how Prodi’s conduct at this summit goes against Italy’s interest. Putting values of human rights and democracy aside for the moment, one can easily perceive the dangers posed by the Italian-Russian relationship in terms of markets competition and energy security. There can be no better proof of the dangers of having the majority of Italy’s energy controlled by a handful of companies than the words of Scaroni himself, who before getting entirely into bed with Gazprom, exhibited a much more critical attitude toward the tactics of the Kremlin’s energy arm. Addressing the European Parliament in April of last year, Scaroni warned of Gazprom’s price coordinating with Algeria, saying that an alliance of the top three gas exporters would be as dangerous as a cartel, and remarking that “gas can be a formidable weapon when it comes to foreign policy.” scaroni.jpg In April ENI’s Paolo Scaroni expressed serious concerns about Gazprom’s agreements with other suppliers, but by November, he had no more complaints. Now, after signing a huge deal with Gazprom in November and putting his company’s name behind the next rigged auction of Yukos assets (a reckless and risky move I have thoroughly condemned), Scaroni marches to the beat of a different drummer:

Scaroni said that the question of his group”s interest in Yukos assets was a separate issue. “We will participate in the bid for Yukos assets on April 4 but this has nothing to do with Gazprom,” Scaroni said. A newspaper report today said that the bid by Eni and Enel SpA, along with Russia”s ESN, for assets of bankrupt Russian oil producer Yukos are at risk due to the potential legal risks the operation would entail. Scaroni said that if Eni won its bid for Yukos the gas extracted could be exported but then added that “the idea is to sell it there”.

So it goes without saying that Prodi’s orientation toward Russia is incredibly unhelpful in coaxing forth the more progressive elements within the government to guide Russia toward democracy. This maddening brand of cowardly subservience and sycophancy to the rule-breaking energy bullies in the Kremlin is exactly what fuels the fire and puts the rest of Europe (and the world at large) into a disadvantaged bargaining position. Without being able to borrow this illusion of legitimacy from Italy and the SPD in Germany, Russia would actually have to enact meaningful policy changes to improve their relations with Europe. In this respect, “Il Professore” Romano Prodi is Vladimir Putin’s best friend. However, the most compelling argument against Prodi’s approach to Russia returns to the subject of values – something that was not overlooked by Italian observers. Russia expert Franco Venturini published a front page editorial in Corriere della Sera which urged the Italian government not to remain silent on human rights, even in the face of economic interests. “There is … a duty to be true to principles that are not negotiable.”