A modern Dante plots his return

Exiled but unrepentant, Bettino Craxi tells Anne Hanley he is not a sinner ... really
Click to follow
UNDER A leafy pergola in a Tunisian beach resort, Italy's former prime minister, Bettino Craxi, feels a certain affinity with President Bill Clinton.

"His political enemies discovered that he had committed... well, what can I call it... an immoral act," says Mr Craxi with something between a schoolboy smirk and a look of admiration. "And so they set the prosecutors on him in order to destroy him. It's the oldest trick in the book. You know how the Florentine republic got rid of its enemy, Dante? Trumped-up charges of nepotism and blackmail."

For almost five years the ex-prime minister has been in exile in this sprawling, white- washed, vine-swathed villa. He is 64 and diabetic. "Dante died in exile in Ravenna, you know," he says wistfully. "He never went home." As time passes, and he chalks up more prison sentences, Mr Craxi's chances of returning to Italy on his own terms ("I'll only go back a free man," he declares) grow slimmer.

In inquiry after inquiry, evidence has been produced to show that Mr Craxi played an active role through decades of systematic bribe-taking in exchange for favours and public works contracts. But he shifts all the guilt on to those politicians who benefited most from his downfall, and the magistrates who proved his wrongdoing, and insists that he is preparing to fight back.

A Tunisian policeman checks papers outside the exile's villa. Marcello, Mr Craxi's pony-tailed assistant, was anxious that I produce a document that did not identify me as a journalist. "If he asks, just say you're a friend of mine," he urged. Whether the policeman was there to keep unwanted visitors out or Mr Craxi in, Marcello was unwilling to divulge. "He just won't let journalists in, that's all," he said, "It's his job."

It was certainly not Mr Craxi himself who wanted to keep the press out. The prime minister of Italy from 1983 to 1987 and former chief of the Socialist Party, which imploded under the weight of its own corruption earlier this decade, wants it to be known that he is more sinned against than sinning. So determined is Mr Craxi to get his message across that he writes down his pronouncements in indecipherable scrawl on sheet after sheet of A3 paper.

Italian politics today? "Complete bedlam," he scribbles. Italy in general? "Quality of life, 23rd in world table, says UN," he writes, underlining "UN" viciously. And the magistrature, responsible for his prison sentence of five and a half years for extortion, and for two more sentences, totalling almost 10 years, still awaiting a supreme court hearing? They, he says, are "the military wing of the post-modern coup d'etat" which drove him and the discredited First Republic from power.

If Mr Craxi has little esteem for Italy's judicial system, he has even less for the former Communist Party, now called the Left Democrats, who "could have used the fall of the Berlin Wall to forge a great socialist force in Italy but instead turned in vile fashion on the Socialists and destroyed them. As a result, Italy's left takes fewer votes now than it ever did before."

Mr Craxi neglects to mention that for the first time in 50 years the ex-Communists are the largest party in the government. He is unimpressed by the centre-left administration, grumbling that "the country's governed by a very weak minority". Italy, according to him, is not cut out for the first-past-the-post electoral system introduced since his downfall. "It's a sick form of democracy: you should know. England has the same foolish law.

"I notice," he chuckles, "that the Labour Party has stopped talking about proportional representation since it came to power."

Mr Craxi is aggrieved that many familiar faces from the past are still in positions of power. Everyone, he says, was caught up in the whirl of corruption that came to be known as Tangentopoli - Bribesville - but those who had investigating magistrates on their side were unfairly exempted from prosecution.

"Illegality? Of course illegal things went on," he says nonchalantly, "because they had to. With the party funding law we had, everyone had to do things under the table." While some gained personally from the corruption, the illegal funds mostly went to keep parties going, and "oligarchies, big bosses" at bay.

The Socialist Party, Mr Craxi says, "had a corruption quotient no higher than that of other parties". Although he vehemently denies lining his own pockets, he concedes that money was salted away, and obliquely admits that it is still safe, waiting for the moment when he will strike back.

Pressed once more on where the bribe money went, he answers slowly and deliberately: "If someone places you in an extraordinary situation, you have to be able to do whatever's necessary. Funds are needed for the fight, the battle, the war."

It seems likely that, despite Mr Craxi's longing to set foot on Italian soil again, this war will be fought with vitriolic letters and a fax machine. He promises to fight any attempt by Italy to extradite him. "I'm protected by international treaties," he insists, but that in itself suggests a deteriorating relationship with the Tunisian government, to which he gave unprecedented aid when he was in power.

The policeman at the end of the drive is monitoring movements to and from the villa, and only last month Tunisia received development aid totalling pounds 50m from the present Italian government in exchange for keeping its citizens from flocking across the Mediterranean in leaky boats.

That Mr Craxi's name came up is well known, but what was agreed is less clear. It seems unlikely, however, that Italy is keen to have an angry, aggressive Mr Craxi on its hands, reopening old conflicts and letting off his broadsides from point-blank range.