San Marino, the world's oldest republic, celebrates its independence on February 5, a holiday called the Feast of Saint Agatha. On this day, even the occupants of the country's six prison cells -- located in a converted horse stable of a former Capuchin monastery at the top of a cliff -- are allowed to enjoy an expensive meal. This year, the holiday meal was delivered to the prison shortly before 1:30 pm. It consisted of risotto with parmesan, followed by roasted turkey with seasonal vegetables, and fruit for dessert. It was accompanied by wine.
At least one inmate, Piero Berti -- a former head of state of San Marino who has been incarcerated here for the past five weeks -- is accustomed to fine foods. He's enjoyed many meals with other dignitaries at Ritrovo dei Lavoratori (the name means "Workers' Meeting Place"), the upscale restaurant in San Marino's capital that supplied the prisoner's holiday meal. It was one of his favorite local restaurants before he landed in prison.
Berti, 46 years old and a doctor by profession, was arrested on January 21 under suspicion of having sexually harassed female patients. It's likely that he will contest the charges against him, but regardless of how the case is resolved it's already managed to land the Republic of San Marino -- a microstate tucked away in the countryside along Italy's Adriatic coast -- in the international spotlight against its will.
A Microstate Against the Ropes
Italy's national television station broadcast live interviews from San Marino using the prison as a backdrop. Newspapers, including the Jornal do Brasil, followed. And as a result, approximately 32,500 Sammarinese -- proud inhabitants of the world's fifth-smallest country -- are once again seeing themselves labeled as exotic oddballs with strange customs.
Even before this latest scandal, people here were already sensing that all was not well in San Marino. For years, the banks at the foot of Mount Titano, the tiny republic's highest peak, were obscenely successful -- rich Italians squirrelled away unreported earnings here to hide them from tax authorities back home. But with the start of the financial crisis, many of those rich Italians withdrew their illegal wealth from the country.
That was the first blow. Then the Italian government enticed tax evaders back home with an amnesty offer. As a result, several banks in San Marino folded, and the once flourishing banking center is now experiencing record levels of unemployment. Italy still refuses to remove the country from its black list, which means that anyone doing business with the tiny, mountainous republic is closely monitored.
Feelings of Persecution
According to the republic's finance minister, the Italian media picks up every piece of bad news from San Marino out of spite, and the Berti case, he says, is more of the same.
That, he continues, is despite the fact that Berti is no longer even head of state, and has been an "ordinary citizen" since 1999. The man's "private concerns," adds the country's foreign minister in frustration, are being used by resentful non-Sammarinese to spread "a negative image of the republic" and its institutions.
Making San Marino's reputation even more difficult to maintain is the fact that here it's more likely than anywhere else in the world that someone who has broken a law was also once a head of state -- the republic inaugurates two new heads of state every six months. Since this rotational principle was implemented in 1243, the small nation has seen over 3,000 Captains Regent, as these highest elected officials are known, come and go.
San Marino currently finds itself, according to its own calculations, in the 1713th year since its founding. In the year 301, Saint Marinus, a pious stonemason and hermit, supposedly declared that his fellow residents atop Mount Titano were henceforth free of servitude to popes or emperors. The balcony of the country's parliamentary and government building bears the historical inscription "Libertas" as a testament to that event.
A Tiny Clique in Power?
On the Feast of Saint Agatha, the Captain Regent -- dressed in a frock coat and top hat -- strides through the medieval alleyways of the old town on his way to church. He's escorted by a Carabinieri general carrying a cavalry saber and a republican guard of honor, and accompanied by the sound of cannon blasts.
During the service in the church crypt, Berti's wife, herself a member of parliament, sits next to a cousin who is a former president. The justice and health ministers, both officially connected to the Berti case simply by dint of their posts, have taken up position in the pew across the way.
Some say the country's powerful are a clique, that the members of the ruling class know one another all too well and that things get hushed up.
Antonella Mularoni, the country's foreign minister of many years, says it's high time San Marino opened up and did something to combat its reputation as a cabinet of curiosities. "Why is it," she asks, "that everyone knows Monaco, but hardly anyone knows San Marino? Is it because we don't have princesses? San Marino is, after all, the oldest republic in the world."