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Italy: Shadow of Extremism Emerges As Berlusconi, Unions Confront One Another

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Italy's political situation is delicately balanced following the murder of government adviser Marco Biagi, an architect of government plans to reform the country's labor laws. The center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is facing an angry labor movement, with neither side showing signs of compromise. Extremists have claimed responsibility for killing Biagi. Does this mean Italy is slipping back toward the atmosphere of terror that reigned in the 1970s and early '80s?

Prague, 29 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Every wall in Italy is now a potential messenger of bad tidings following the murder of government labor adviser Marco Biagi.

Biagi was gunned down on a Bologna street in March. On a wall near the murder site, police found a dreaded sign: a machine gun inside a five-pointed star, the symbol of the Brigate Rosse -- the Red Brigades -- Italy's most-feared terrorist organization.

The Red Brigades has been largely dormant for more than a decade, following a series of trials of its leaders. But a new generation appears to be stirring because an offshoot of the Red Brigades claimed responsibility for killing Biagi.

If the star and gun start appearing on more walls, it seems certain Italy is in for fresh violence.

Biagi was helping formulate reforms to Italy's labor market. Those reforms, though modest in themselves, are opposed by the country's powerful labor unions, which see them as the start of an attempt by the government to cut down Italy's social welfare system.

The atmosphere has grown more heated, with unionists holding mass demonstrations against the reforms and against terrorism, and with Prime Minister Berlusconi and his ministers maintaining a combative stance. In particular, Reform Minister Umberto Bossi has lashed out at the unions, accusing them of being partly to blame for Biagi's death. Talks between the two sides have broken off.

As the Berlin correspondent of the leading Italian daily "Corriere della Sera," Francesca Sforza, puts it: "Berlusconi should not continue with the tension, but that is exactly what he is doing. He [appears to] have at the moment no intention of reducing the tension. His comments are always very sharp, and that naturally is not a good contribution to a continuation of the negotiations [with the unions]."

The professor of Italian politics at the American University of Rome, James Waltson, also says Berlusconi is showing lack of judgement in allowing the situation to escalate. But he sees a second possibility, namely that the prime minister is allowing his ministers to make these outbursts on purpose, with a political motive.

"He has shown very poor control and leadership. But I think some of it is more or less 'on the nod' -- meaning that I would guess that some of these outbursts have been allowed [by Berlusconi]. I would be extremely surprised if anything explicit had been said [to this effect], but you don't usually speak so much out of turn," Waltson says.

The rightist Bossi of the Northern League sharply criticized the European Union recently. And a second minister, Defense Minister Antonio Martino, echoed Bossi both on the EU and on the unions. Waltson's theory is that Berlusconi may be floating trial balloons -- in other words, he's letting his ministers take hard-line positions to test the public's reaction. If the reaction is unfavorable, he can always disclaim the sentiments as isolated opinions.

But such a tactic -- if that's what it is -- is a dangerous one if it helps summon a ghost from the past, namely the Red Brigades. Waltson says that, based on present indications, there could be trouble ahead.

"We are heading toward social strife, political strife, because Berlusconi's government, since it began, has been extremely divisive, and he is an extremely divisive figure. So I think there are very serious dangers for Italy, dangers for its democratic institutions," Waltson says.

"Corriere della Sera" correspondent Sforza also worries that the present confrontational political style could result in a re-emergence of extremism.

"I think our democracy [in Italy] at present is stronger than it was then [in the 1970s]. But it's certain that the desire of Berlusconi to increase the tension, rather than to reduce it, is not good. In such an atmosphere of tension, terrorism finds a good soil," Sforza says.

State President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi has called for moderation, saying that elected politicians should be guided by the logic that deadlock in society must be avoided.