The Jean-Claude Van Damme Trade Theory By Max Delany Staff Writer The secret to flourishing relations between Russia and Italy might just be explained in the form of a B movie star: Jean-Claude Van Damme. The actor appears to be a favorite of both President Vladimir Putin and his old pal Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. Van Damme sat beside Putin, a judo expert, during a martial arts contest in St. Petersburg on Sunday, and he got a big hug from Berlusconi afterward during a cocktail party at Konstantin Palace. Wait, you say. So what might the Muscles from Brussels represent between Russia and Italy? Simple. His movies are loved in both countries and, some businessmen suggest, he epitomizes similarities shared by Russians and Italians. “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.” He is echoed by Mikhail Asiryan, head of Ameria, a company that has imported Italian pasta since the early 1990s. “Italians seem to feel very comfortable in Russia. Even despite the cold,” he said. Commonalities appear to be playing a major role in a revival of trade ties that stretch back to Soviet times. The friendship between Putin and Berlusconi is key, businessmen say, as is the fact that there is a lot of money to be made on both sides. Putin visited Italy in March, and a flurry of business activity has broken out in the weeks since. A consortium of Italian giants Eni and Enel became the first foreign company to scoop up former Yukos assets at a recent auction, and Aeroflot has mounted a bid for Italy’s Alitalia airline. More than 30 Italian companies, meanwhile, are setting up factories around the country, focusing on transportation, the defense industry and even ceramic cookers, Torrembini said. “There were never such relations before as there are now. It is really a very positive moment in the relationship between the Italian and the Russian economies,” Torrembini said. Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref will leave Friday for a trip to Italy. His Italian counterpart, Emma Bonino, made her first visit to Moscow last week. Bonino praised the “very intense relationship of commercial and cultural exchange” between Russia and Italy after her talks with Gref, whom she called a “very pragmatic man.” She also said Gref had underscored the importance of Russian companies expanding and investing into key Italian industries apart from oil and gas. Umberto Vattoni, president of the Italian Trade Commission, said Gref’s remarks showed Italy was now in a “position of pre-eminence.” Figures bear out the upbeat assessment, with a surge of nearly 20 percent in bilateral trade last year that took the total to more than $20 billion for 2006. That puts Italy in third place among European countries, behind Germany and the Netherlands, according to the Italian Trade Commission. Moreover, Russia became the top destination for Italian exports outside the European Union last year, while Russia shipped $13.6 billion in goods to Italy. “In brief, Italy exports finished products and imports raw materials,” said Fabrizio Camastra, deputy director of the Italian Trade Commission. He named machinery, textiles and furniture as the major sectors of Italian exports. Despite changes in Italian leadership after elections last year, the current boom is widely credited to Berlusconi’s influence. “Anything of this strategic magnitude would have been in the pipeline for a long time and would have been germinated during Berlusconi’s period in power,” said Roland Nash, head of research at Renaissance Capital. Putin and Berlusconi have vacationed together, and Berlusconi has long defended Putin’s policies, even as the leaders of other EU countries worried about growing authoritarianism in Russia. “Berlusconi seemed more willing to turn a blind eye or play realpolitik than just about anyone else in Europe,” Nash said. “Berlusconi clearly has a lot of remaining influence, both political and in business,” he added. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi appears less willing to ignore reservations about Russian policies. Torrembini, of Gim Unimpresa, said economics trumped Putin and Berlusconi’s friendship. “I know that they had a close personal relationship, but the good relationship has continued under Prodi,” he said. “The personal relationship has some influence but not as great as the economics.” Beyond the complexities of politics and billion-dollar deals, businessmen on the ground are concentrating on making money. A three-week “Made in Italy” exhibition opened last Wednesday at the GUM department store, showcasing scooters, Alfa Romeo cars and Ariston fridges. “The partnership between Russian and Italian business is growing and getting stronger. The Italians have been quick to adapt to the peculiarities of Russia,” said Asiryan. “The people understand one another, and there are certain characteristics that unite them,” Torrembini said.