ROME (Reuters) - U.S. diplomats voiced concern over Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the grip of energy interests on Rome’s foreign policy, according to cables made public by WikiLeaks.
The whistle-blowing website had previously given a flavor of the U.S. view of Berlusconi, described in extracts as Putin’s “mouthpiece,” but what appears to be a full cable from the U.S. embassy in Rome, published on Thursday, fills out an assessment that depicts Italy as in thrall to Moscow.
The WikiLeaks revelations have increased pressure on Berlusconi, weakened by months of sex scandals and party infighting. He faces a no-confidence vote in parliament this month which could topple his center-right government.
“A foreign policy designed to deny Russia nothing” is the headline on one section of the 2009 cable, which highlighted the powerful role of oil and gas group ENI and contained allegations that Berlusconi and associates may have profited from energy deals with Russia.
The cable says Berlusconi sidelined Foreign Minister Franco Frattini almost entirely, going directly to Putin with whom he exchanged “lavish gifts” and considered he had a personal bond.
“The basis of the friendship is hard to determine but many interlocutors have told us that Berlusconi believes that Putin, a fellow ‘tycoon’, trusts Berlusconi more than any other European leader,” the cable from Ambassador Ronald Spogli read.
It said the Italian prime minister’s advisers were reluctant to challenge him over his relationship with the Russian leader but even some members of his own PDL party had expressed concern over Berlusconi’s “giddiness about Putin.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has this week gone out of her way to placate Berlusconi, described in an earlier leaked diplomatic cable as “feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader.” It alleged he was exhausted by “partying hard.”
On the sidelines of a summit meeting in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, she said: “We have no better friend.”
But the leaked document shows serious concern that Berlusconi, who irritated Washington with his support for Moscow during the 2008 Georgian war, was working “overtime” within the European Union on Moscow’s behalf.
“His overwhelming desire is to remain in Putin’s good graces, and he has frequently voiced opinions and declarations that have been passed to him directly by Putin,” the cable said.
Berlusconi, who has been in Kazakhstan for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Italy’s relationship with the United States would not be affected by the reports and he denied any improper behavior.
“The United States knows very well that I have absolutely no interests with any other country, that there are no personal interests at all but that I have only acted with the interests of Italians and my country at heart,” he was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as saying.
The leaked cable highlighted the role allegedly played by Valentino Valentini, a Russian-speaking member of parliament who it said operated as Berlusconi’s “key man on Russia.”
“What he does in Moscow during his frequent visits is unclear but he is widely rumored to be looking after Berlusconi’s business interests in Russia,” it said.
In a statement, Valentini dismissed the leaks as “corridor chatter” which reflected the partial views of one ambassador.
“In reality, there is nothing mysterious about the relationship between Russia and Italy as I have often had the opportunity to tell Ambassador Spogli directly,” he said.
As well as the comments on Berlusconi, the cable highlights the role played in Italian foreign policy by ENI, whose view of the European energy situation “was disturbingly similar to that of (Russian gas giant) Gazprom and the Kremlin.”
It said ENI wielded immense political power and ran a lobbying effort that was better funded than most government offices and which overshadowed the underfunded and overstretched Foreign Ministry.
“One member of the opposition center-left PD party told political officers that ENI’s presence in Russia exceeds that of Italy’s understaffed embassy,” it said.
No comment was immediately available from ENI.
Additional reporting by Francesca Piscioneri; editing by Barry Moody and Janet Lawrence