Putin Has a New Old Friend in Europe

berlusconiputin041508.jpgWhen Vladimir Putin’s best friend in the European Union, Gerhard Schröder, left office he headed straight into employment for his friends in the Kremlin, taking a cushy seat on the board of the Nord Stream pipeline project. When Putin’s other best friend Silvio Berlusconi left office back in 2006, similar job offers were probably on the table, but Italy’s third most wealthy man held on tight for his next chance to return as Prime Minister. Having sailed to a comfortable victory in the elections on a wave of garbage (both literal and figurative), the ostentatious Berlusconi made it clear who is #1 for him, announcing that Vladimir Putin will be the first foreign head of state he will meet with, inviting the outgoing president for a dinner this weekend at his lavish Sardinian villa. It will probably be the most fun these men have had together since hanging out with Jean Claude Van Damme to watch an ultimate fighting championship, where they repeatedly expressed their mutual admiration of each other, and perhaps shared tips on successful neo-populism. But the similarities don’t end there for these bosom buddies.

Max Delaney of the Moscow Times wrote an amusing article about one year ago proposing a Russo-Italian trade theory around the B-movie action hero:

“In his films, he is close to both the Russian and Italian mentalities,” said Vittorio Torrembini, vice president of Gim Unimpresa, an organization representing Italian businessmen in Russia.Like Van Damme’s characters, “neither Italians nor Russians like very strict laws. In Russia you can usually find some way around it, the same as in Italy,” Torrembini said.”I’ve lived for almost 18 years in Russia, and I’ve come to the conclusion that firstly the Italian way of life is similar to Russia’s.”

Italy’s booming trade with Russia, which is very troubling for the EU in terms of energy security, seems to be accompanied by a type of political convergence. Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia ran a platform and campaign style remarkably similar to that of United Russia – and both parties maintain alliances with extremist, anti-immigrant parties and social movements. Both organizations are better understood as personalistic vehicles than actual functioning political parties of horizontal accountability. Neither United Russia nor Forza Italia will likely continue to exist without their respective figureheads, leaving both democracies weakened institutionally.Berlusconi and Putin have a similar level of dominance and control of the media – Berlusconi as one of Italy’s largest media owners, and Putin via mechanisms of state ownership (Gazprom), censorship, and other limitations on freedom of expression. Both men have played dangerous games with electoral laws to perpetuate their power and influence, and diminish competition.However, most of these similarities are nothing new, and Russia already was enjoying about as docile as a prime minister it could have dreamed of with “Il Professore” Romano Prodi. Those interested in extending Russia’s energy stranglehold over Europe are also very pleased to have the cooperation of Eni’s Paolo Scaroni and Enel’s Fulvio Conti – both of whom were pressured into buying stolen Yukos assets in auctions that will likely be declared illegal by many foreign courts.So how could having the clownish Berlusconi back in power in Italy possibly make anything worse? Well, for one, the hard line activism of the hawks in the Kremlin was finally beginning to wear thin in Europe. (i.e. – their actions against TNK-BP, Rosneft and Sechin’s aggressive maneuvering, the medical blackmail of Alexanyan, and all the rest of the laundry list of unfortunate recent events which were dragging Russia’s reputation through the mud right as Dmitry Medvedev was trying to build political capital.) Now with Berlusconi back in the EU, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD in Germany will have a new friend in Italy to help him weaken Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent efforts to push through with reforms on the ECHR, and European disunity over energy security and unbundling will likely deepen even further.Perhaps worst of all, Berlusconi will help keep the siloviki strong in the Kremlin instead of allowing for the emergence of the liberal civilian technocrats.