Berlusconi causes new EU rift with Chechnya remarks

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The Independent Online

Italy's maverick premier, Silvio Berlusconi, was at the centre of a deep diplomatic rift yesterday after undermining Europe's efforts to put pressure on Russia to improve human rights in Chechnya.

Mr Berlusconi contradicted agreed EU policy by defending Moscow's behaviour in Chechnya, provoking a diplomatic outcry. He also plunged the Italian presidency of the EU into a rare public rift with the European Commission - something both sides normally take huge pains to avoid.

The Italian leader's controversial comments were made after an EU-Russia summit in Rome on Thursday at which he also defended Moscow's handling of the case concerning the Yukos oil giant.

Mr Berlusconi, who has styled himself as an ally of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said that "in Chechnya, there has been terrorist activity that has produced many attacks against Russian citizens and there has never been an equivalent response from the Russian Federation". He added: "The truth is that there are often distortions in the press, in Italy as abroad. It's the same thing as far as Chechnya and the Yukos story is concerned," he said, referring to the arrest of the head of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on fraud charges.

The Italian Prime Minister's statement undermined months of preparation by the European Commission, which has been trying to exert pressure on Mr Putin over its human rights record in Chechnya. Chris Patten, European commissioner for external relations, had highlighted EU concerns over human rights in Chechnya during private talks with Mr Putin. He later distanced himself from Mr Berlusconi's words, and one official described the Italian premier's intervention as "insane".

The Commission is increasingly exasperated by the way in which Moscow manages to undermine agreed policy by winning support in key European capitals, including Rome, London and Paris.

"What is the point of saying these things in talks to put pressure on the Russians if the President of the Council then contradicts them?" one official said. Significantly, the Chechnya issue was avoided in the agreed statement at the end of the summit, to the anger of human rights campaigners.

The episode highlights the difficulties of forging a common EU foreign policy, and is likely to strengthen calls for the reform of the rotating presidency system, which is due to be changed in a new constitution for the EU.

But it also produced a spectacular row between Mr Berlusconi and Mr Prodi, who are bitter political rivals. The two men have been scarcely able to disguise their mutual loathing, but relations now appear to have reached rock bottom. In the aftermath of the press conference, Mr Prodi said: "I hope that Prime Minister Berlusconi's information on the state of affairs regarding the media in Russia is better than the one President Putin has been given of Italy."

Yesterday Mr Berlusconi's aides hit back, arguing: "If the Commission and President Prodi had something contrary to say to Prime Minister Berlusconi about the Yukos or the Chechen controversies they could have done so freely during the course of the entire meeting with President Putin or in the long and animated press conference afterwards."

Mr Prodi's spokesman, Reijo Kemppinen, said that Mr Patten had made the Commission's view on Chechnya clear during talks with Mr Putin.

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