The controversial friendship between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to have come to an end after more than two decades of reciprocal admiration, family holidays and shared political values.
Rumours that the relationship had been growing frosty were confirmed on Saturday at a Forza Italia convention in Rome when Berlusconi took to the stage and uttered Putin’s name for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.
“I cannot and do not want to hide the fact that I am deeply disappointed and saddened by the behaviour of Vladimir Putin,” the billionaire media mogul said. “I met him 20 years ago and he’d always seemed a man of democracy and peace.”
But 20 years of friendship could not withstand Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, prompting the 85-year-old former Italian premier to reconsider his alliance with the man he called “undoubtedly the No 1 among world leaders” in 2015, and once compared to a younger brother.
“Faced with the horrors of civilian massacres in Bucha and other areas in Ukraine, real war crimes, Russia cannot deny its responsibility,” Berlusconi said. “It should, for its own interests, identify and put the perpetrators on trial.”
Berlusconi had reportedly tried on multiple occasions to telephone the Kremlin over the past month only to be hurriedly dismissed, Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported on Sunday. A far cry from what Forza Italia member Giuliano Urbani described in 2001 as very frequent communication between the two leaders. But much has changed since the year the controversial duo first connected.
It was July 2001 and Berlusconi had just been re-elected as prime minister for the second time when Putin first called to congratulate him.
Over the years the world has become accustomed to images of the pair in relaxed attire sharing meals and smiles and exploring Berlusconi’s luxury summer home on the island of Sardinia. The former Italian leader even gifted Putin a duvet bearing the image of the two for the Russian president’s 65th birthday.
Equally, the leader of Forza Italia has been hosted on several occasions by Putin. In 2002, Berlusconi became the first western leader to be welcomed in Putin’s Sochi home, while in 2003 photos were published of the two in fur ushanka hats and sub-zero temperatures in the village of Zavidovo.
Even through the gravest of blunders, scandals and expansionist moves, the two men have had each other’s backs.
In 2010, Berlusconi’s already contentious private life took a turn for the worst when local media reports revealed that an underaged Moroccan girl had attended the so-called “bunga bunga” sex parties at the Italian tycoon’s house near Milan. Leaked cables and media reports suggested that Putin himself attended at least two of these parties.
Five years later, Berlusconi paid a controversial visit to Putin in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea, not long after Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine, where they reportedly uncorked a Spanish wine worth €100,000.
“In Crimea people thank [Putin] with tears in their eyes for what he’s done,” Berlusconi said at the time.
Soon after, Ukrainian media reported that the country’s security services banned the Italian leader from entering Ukraine for three years in “the interest of national security”.
But it wasn’t all parties and lavish dinners. Wikileaks cables published in 2010 suggested that Berlusconi and Putin had strong financial links.
According to the cables, the then US ambassador to Rome, Ronald Spogli, wrote in 2009 that both his colleagues and sources close to Berlusconi had said that the former prime minister “and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia.
“The Georgian ambassador in Rome has told us that the government of Georgia believes Putin has promised Berlusconi a percentage of profits from any pipelines developed by Gazprom in coordination with ENI,” Spogli wrote in the leaked dispatches in reference to the Italian and Russian energy giants. Berlusconi swiftly denied the allegations.
Today, mounting evidence of possible Russian war crimes and alleged human rights violations in Ukraine may have put an end to all this, at least publicly.
Whether Berlusconi and Putin will eventually reconnect in private remains to be seen. But the world is unlikely to witness again the jovial men linking arms, enjoying the Mediterranean sun off the coast of Italy, or cheering on the Russian bobsleigh team in the Caucasus Mountains town of Krasnaja Poliana.
As the international community continues to isolate Russia, maintaining links to Putin would complicate matters for the already controversial former prime minister, particularly as the Italian government moves forward in its attempt to disentangle the country from its reliance on Russian gas while also condemning Putin’s war.
Last week, Italian prime minister Mario Draghi called on Russia to halt the “massacre of civilians”.
“War crimes must be punished,” said Draghi. “President Putin, the Russian authorities and its army will have to be held to account for their actions.”
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