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Italy: Critics Say Berlusconi Seeking To Avoid Graft Trial With New Law

Allies of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are apparently seeking to avoid his trial on corruption charges by passing a new law in parliament. The move has the opposition up in arms, but observers say the media mogul appears to be proceeding legally, despite suspicions.

Prague, 6 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Silvio Berlusconi is no Central Asian autocrat, but the Italian prime minister and media mogul enjoys a concentration of personal wealth and political power as rare in Western Europe as it is the rule in many countries of the former Soviet Union.

In a country full of millionaires, Berlusconi's a billionaire.

In a country of show-business savvy, Berlusconi controls most public and private national television channels, as well as many of the country's leading newspapers and magazines.

And in a football-mad country, Berlusconi owns one of the most successful clubs in history, AC Milan.

Finally, in a country synonymous with political instability, Berlusconi's center-right cabinet enjoys a large majority in both houses of parliament, virtually ensuring it will become Italy's first government since World War II to serve its full five-year mandate.

Berlusconi, indeed, has everything. So what more could he possible want?

Last week, Berlusconi's majority in the Senate passed a controversial bill that would allow defendants to seek the annulment or transfer of their trial to another court if there is "legitimate suspicion" the judges are biased.

The center-left opposition says Berlusconi wants to see the Chamber of Deputies pass the legislation into law by September. That's when a Milan court is scheduled to resume a trial in which Berlusconi is accused of bribing judges in a quest to acquire a food company in the mid-1980s.

Berlusconi's critics say the time it would take to move the trial to another venue could increase the chances of acquittal because of the statute of limitations.

Berlusconi, who has benefited from the statute of limitations in several other corruption cases in the past, professes no interest in the bill.

Luciano Volante, a leader of the Democratic Party of the Left, calls the legislation unprecedented in Western Europe. A former speaker of the Senate, Volante recently said that the bill "borders on true totalitarianism."

Ezio Mauro, editor of "La Repubblica," Italy's best-selling daily newspaper, wrote recently that Berlusconi is threatening to undermine the legal norms upon which European society rests. In an allusion to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, he compared Berlusconi to "the great paranoid politicians" of history who have sought to wipe out any trace of history with the swipe of a pen.

But Jean-Pierre Darnis, a political analyst at Rome's Institute of International Affairs, said that much of what the foreign media write about Berlusconi is exaggerated. Darnis noted that Berlusconi enjoys huge popularity in Italy and that his election was fully democratic. "Berlusconi is not a dictator in Venezuela or in Africa in a banana republic. We shall not forget that," Darnis said.

Darnis said Berlusconi is attractive to Italians because he is a self-made man who has used all the loopholes of a deeply flawed system to his own immense success. Darnis said many Italians have done just what Berlusconi has and want someone in office who will protect their wealth from the political left, which they see as unlikely to decrease their tax burden, which is among Europe's highest.

Greg Burke is a former "Time" magazine correspondent in Rome who now reports from the Italian capital for Fox News television in the United States. Like Darnis, Burke said many Italians appear to be unconcerned about Berlusconi's legal woes, which include a series of trials in which he was convicted of false accounting or corruption but acquitted on appeal.

Burke said average Italians see Berlusconi as a self-made businessman who is being "unfairly" persecuted by a rapacious tax regime. "The public opinion to a large degree -- he has convinced them that a number of these cases were politically motivated. Now this [new legislation] is probably just going to put an end to it completely, and he's going to be off scot-free," Burke said.

Burke said Berlusconi's popularity remains high, despite the fact he has yet to live up to his campaign promises of lower taxes and less bureaucracy. He said it's a popularity bordering on a personality cult. "It's offset, too, by the visceral Berlusconi hatred at the same time, but there's definitely a cult. I've traveled with him. I've watched people reaching out just to see if they can touch the man, you know?" Burke said.

Despite its protests, Darnis said the opposition has only itself to blame for its Berlusconi problem.

For example, Berlusconi has yet to solve his conflict-of-interest problem, which centers on his ownership of Italy's main private television concern and his control, as head of government, over the three state television channels.

Darnis said the opposition had plenty of time while in government to pass legislation to separate his political and business affairs, but never did. Darnis said this is because the opposition wanted to continue to have the conflict-of-interest problem as a card to play against Berlusconi. "I mean, this nonresolution of the conflict-of-interest problem in Italy is also a pure internal political game, and this game was started by the opposition," Darnis said.

And the opposition is likely to be on the sidelines for four more years.

So far, Darnis said all of Berlusconi's political methods have been legal and democratic. And his next move could follow suit, even if it would raise eyebrows among European Union leaders in Brussels.

Berlusconi has suggested he may seek to change the constitution to turn Italy into a republic like France, giving the president far greater power.

Although changing the constitution would be a tough task, few doubt Berlusconi has the popularity to be elected to Italy's highest office.