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Italy Will Remain Silent In Showdown With Russia

Silvio Berlusconi (left) has a close relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin.
Silvio Berlusconi (left) has a close relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin.
As the EU finds itself in a showdown with Moscow over Georgia, one key EU state is rarely heard in the debate: Italy.

The reason is not only that Italy is a major trading partner with Russia. After all, so are France and Germany. But Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, more than any other current European leader, has made partnership with Moscow a priority.

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with Giovanni Gasparini, senior fellow for security and defense at the Rome-based Istituto Affari Internazionali, to learn more.

RFE/RL: Throughout the crisis over Georgia, Italy's voice has been the quietest among the key EU states. Why is that?

Giovanni Gasparini: There has been this silence because our position is a bit embarrassed for two reasons. The first is that we have economic interests that suggest that we keep a low profile in the crisis, particularly interests in the energy sector, and the second is that the current minister of foreign affairs and the prime minister have a very strong link with [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin himself. Berlusconi has always been keen on quoting himself as being a big friend of Putin and even defended him at an international press conference when they were talking about Chechnya.

RFE/RL: The EU can be said to have divided into two blocs over how to deal with Moscow. One bloc favors negotiations based on shared interests, as championed by France and Germany. The other is more confrontational, as championed by some of the Eastern European members. Where is Italy on that spectrum?

Gasparini: Our position is like that of France and Germany to that extent, but it is much more reactive than proactive. And the reason why we cannot be proactive is exactly for this specific Italian weakness: energy sources coming from Russia, first. And second, for the personal history and the low level of credibility of Berlusconi as a mediator in a crisis such as this one.

RFE/RL: Exactly what are Italy's areas of economic cooperation with Russia?

Gasparini: In terms of specific Italian-Russian cooperation, the energy sector is predominant -- particularly in natural gas. Eni is the main player there and Eni is a very proactive partner of Gazprom and also has granted Gazprom a certain interest in the Italian and, therefore, European energy market. So there is a very strong link.

Actually there is a dangerous link here, because Eni, which is the main Italian producer of energy and the importer of all petrol and gas, is also in a way pushing a foreign policy of its own in a period when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is particularly weak and so [Eni] is shaping in a not-so-appropriate way Italian interests as well.

The second element of cooperation that we have is in the aeronautics sector. We have cooperation particularly in the civilian one, but with a little of, generally speaking of [all aeronautic] technologies. The Finmeccanica group has a number of alliances in the helicopter and civil-aviation market and they are very important because the aerospace sector is one of the few high-tech industrial sectors that is in Russia. Of course, having strategic links with the defense market could be problematic as well if there is a fundamental shift of the partnership with Russia.

RFE/RL: The EU holds a summit on September 1, in another effort to find a united position over Russia and the Georgia crisis. Do you see the EU making progress in deciding how it will deal with Moscow?

Gasparini: I have the sense that the EU would like to leave to NATO the punishment, if you wish, the negative element, so that in a way the European Union could then contribute to and continue the partnership [with Russia]. So, this could be a division of labor that could separate the security argument from the others. But it is not so certain that you can do that, first of all, or if it would be effective.

Certainly, we will need to have a certain element of brinkmanship [to face this crisis], which is not always easy. And it is not always easy because the European Union is not so united and it also does not have the institutional elements in place to give a significant and unified reaction, that is, a significant unified proposal of engagement with Russia.

Just consider the fact that in this case we have the crisis during the semester in which a big power, France, which is used to this kind of international warring, is in power and it has had some -- some -- capabilities to deploy in diplomatic terms.

But what would have happened if the Presidency of the European Union, which is going to be in the next semesters Polish, for example, and then Czech, were in the hands of countries which are much weaker and have completely different historical relations with Russia? How would they have reacted? Probably in a very different way. And we cannot accept this fact that the European Union changes its line according to its presidency; it is something that is damaging to its credibility and is undermining the strategic approach that the European Union has offered to Russia as well.

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