Berlusconi buys time with business-trust plan

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THE Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, bought his embattled government some breathing space yesterday when he announced plans to separate his business and political interests. He told a news conference that his Fininvest business empire would be administered as a trust by an individual of his choosing. The trustee would, however, be accountable to a five-man parliamentary committee.

The proposal is unlikely to take effect until well into September, as it will have to be approved by parliament. The Prime Minister, who appeared to have regained some of his old confidence, went out of his way to quash talk of a government collapse after only three months in office. He told reporters: 'I intend to govern for a long time . . . I took this job to bring about deep changes and I am the only one who can (do so).'

Commentators were already pointing out that severing Mr Berlusconi's involvement with Fininvest was not necessarily the end of the problem.

The most obvious example is broadcasting. Mr Berlusconi owns half the country's television stations and the government is due to consider the reform and probable streamlining of the industry. No obvious way around that conflict of interest has been found. 'It's halfway between a step forward and a spot of window-dressing,' said Paolo Campanelli, a professor of economics at Rome University.

In the short term, Mr Berlusconi has much improved his chances of survival. With parliament's summer break coming up, he has taken the sting out of charges that conflict of interest was making him unfit to run the country. He was helped by his brother Paolo's decision earlier in the day to give himself up for questioning by anti-graft magistrates.

In Milan, the former Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi was sentenced in absentia yesterday to eight-and-a-half years in jail after being found guilty of fraud. He is refusing to return to Italy from his holiday home in Tunisia, claiming he is too ill to travel.