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Europe: How Will Berlusconi's Return Affect EU, NATO, Trans-Atlantic Relations?

Silvio Berlusconi at a press conference in Rome after his election (AFP) For the third time, Italians have elected Silvio Berlusconi to lead their country as prime minister. And now that he’s back in power, representing Europe’s fourth-largest economy, Berlusconi is once again a leading player on the continent. 

Italy’s richest man and media magnate, Berlusconi loves the limelight and is known for making controversial remarks. He clearly rubs a lot of people the wrong way. And that raises the natural question of how Italy -- under Berlusconi -- will affect European Union and NATO policies, and whether the political shift in Italy means any changes to relations with Russia or the United States.

During his second term as Italian prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Berlusconi was accused of isolating Italy from its EU partners by concentrating on relations with Washington and Moscow. Berlusconi was a staunch ally of the United States in the war on terror, contributing soldiers to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan and to Iraq.

Emilio Viano, a professor at American University in Washington, notes that with Berlusconi’s return, Italy is now the third major European country to become friendlier to the United States in recent years, pointing to the shifts under President Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany.

"I think that definitely the fact that Berlusconi and his party are back in government is more positive for President [George W.] Bush and, in general, the United States," he says. "And it is remarkable that there has been this change in fortunes. Obviously, we will soon have another [U.S.] administration in a few months, but I think that, by and large, this is a positive development."

Special Relationship

But economics is likely to play a major role in Berlusconi’s calculations. Italy’s economy is stagnating and many expect the country to head into a recession. Which is why analysts think Berlusconi will emphasize his special relationship with energy-rich Russia.

During his last tenure as Italian prime minister, Berlusconi forged close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, defending Moscow’s actions in Chechnya and building close economic links with Russia. And Putin will be the first foreign leader Berlusconi welcomes, when the two men meet for talks in Sardinia on April 17.

The Russian leader will have just arrived from Libya -- a major oil and gas supplier -- and the two men will have much to discuss. Russia, which supplies more than one-quarter of the natural gas consumed in the EU, has been seeking to consolidate its position by striking new deals with North African suppliers, like Algeria and Libya.

ENI, the Italian oil and gas corporation, is heavily involved in Libya, so the possibilities for a joint deal to supply Europe are clear. Last week, the heads of ENI and Gazprom met in Moscow to discuss just such a tie-up. ENI and Gazprom are already cooperating on the South Stream pipeline project in the Black Sea. Russia has made no secret of the fact that it sees the route as an alternative to the EU's competing Nabucco project, intended to relieve the bloc's dependency on Russia.

Berlusconi’s deal-making with Putin is sure to give the EU -- which is trying to forge a common energy policy and wean itself from dependence on Russian energy -- a major headache. And it’s also making Russia’s neighbors -- such as Ukraine -- wary.

Bad News For Ukraine?

Oksana Pakhlovska, professor of Ukrainian studies at Rome’s La Sapienza University, says Berlusconi’s election is not good news for Ukraine. She believes Kyiv shouldn’t count on Italy’s support as it seeks to obtain a Membership Action Plan from NATO.

“For Ukraine, this is the worst option because Berlusconi is first of all a populist," she says. "He has no political or ideological ideas, and the east of Europe is business territory for him. Regarding Russia, Berlusconi had great relations with Putin even when everybody in the West was criticizing Putin for the campaign in Chechnya and so on.”

And there’s another reason Ukrainians -- and many other Eastern Europeans who have found work in Italy -- may have reason to worry about Berlusconi’s return: his anti-immigrant stance. Immediately after his latest victory, Berlusconi vowed to close Italy’s borders to illegal immigrants in a crackdown on criminals he called "the army of evil."

Berlusconi’s political ally, the right-wing Northern League party, employs even harsher rhetoric against foreigners. It made big gains in the elections.

“Regarding immigrants, frankly speaking, the situation is not likely to improve," says Oles Horodetsky, chairman of the Christian Society of Ukrainians in Rome. "As you know, the Northern League has gained many percent. They are in the coalition. Berlusconi would have lost without them. And their stand on immigrants is very tough. It was one of the hot issues during the campaign because the crime rate has increased. Many immigrants, among them Romanians, are involved in this, and people are very upset.”

It’s clear economics and domestic political considerations are likely to shape Berlusconi’s policies in his third term -- which he has vowed will last its full five years.

Italian voters are in a sour mood. And that means Europe and the United States can expect some surprises from this most unpredictable and pragmatic of leaders.

Ahto Lobjakas in Brussels, Andrew F. Tully in Washington, and Marianna Dratch of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

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