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Macho Friends Washington Concerned about Berlusconi-Putin Axis

What is behind the friendship between Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Russia's Vladimir Putin? The close relationship between the two leaders is a source of unease for the US State Department. The leaked cables contain allegations of personal business interests that both politicians deny.

The host didn't look good. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was "bandaged and bruised from the December attack," noted David Thorne, the US ambassador to Rome in a dispatch sent to Washington. Thorne had been to visit Berlusconi at his country home in Lombardy on New Year's Day in 2010, only two weeks after a mentally ill man had hit the Italian leader in the face with a statuette during a visit to Milan.

The American's visit apparently cheered up the Italian prime minister. Berlusconi showed his guest around the sumptuous villa. In the cable describing the visit, the US diplomat noted with satisfaction that Berlusconi did not ask the US for a single favor. It was clear, Thorne wrote, that the Italian leader wanted to be a good partner to the Americans.

But the harmonious visit was unexpectedly interrupted. The telephone rang: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanted to speak with Il Cavaliere.

The American was quickly ushered out. The Russian was more important.

'A Penchant for Partying Hard'

The memo that followed the visit indicated the complicated relationship that the Americans have with Italy's most powerful man. They believe that he is pro-American but they describe their relationship with him as "complex" and his leadership style as "unorthodox."

"Sex scandals, criminal investigations, family problems and financial concerns appear to be weighing heavily on Berlusconi's personal and political health as well as on his decision-making ability," they write. One cable relates that Berlusconi briefly nodded off during the inaugural visit by the US ambassador. "Frequent late nights and a penchant for partying hard mean that he does not get sufficient rest," the ambassador cabled to Washington.

But one factor in particular tarnishes the relationship: Berlusconi's strange fascination for Putin. The Russian's wife and daughter often visit Berlusconi. Strawberry cake and swordfish are on the villa menu when they are there, and Putin telephones to wish them bon appetit.

Originals: The Key Berlusconi/Putin Cables

Berlusconi, for his part, is only too happy to attend Putin's parties, once even changing an appointment with King Abdullah II of Jordan to do so. "Berlusconi … thus, unavoidably, left the impression that, in choosing private fun over statecraft, he was husbanding his flagging energies for a blow-out party at Putin's private dacha," the US diplomats noted. Since revelations about his earlier excesses have come to light, wild parties in Italy have become too risky for Berlusconi, the Americans speculated.

In early 2009, the Russian-Italian relationship was the subject of a nine page memo by then US Ambassador to Italy Ronald Spogli. "Berlusconi believes that Putin is his close and personal friend and continues to have more contact with Putin than with any other world leader," he wrote. The Italian leader, Spogli wrote, admires Putin's macho style of governing and sees in his Russian friend a "fellow tycoon."

Conspiracy Theories

This Russian-Italian axis does not suit the Americans at all. Because Berlusconi has negotiated generous conditions for the Italian oil and energy giant Eni with the Russian firm Gazprom, and because he generally supports Russian energy projects rather than those of Western countries, the Americans see their energy interests endangered.

US diplomats believe Berlusconi is immune to political influence. He generally makes decisions relating to Russia by himself, and Italian diplomats are seldom allowed to get involved. When former US Vice President Dick Cheney asked about Russo-Italian relations, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini apparently just shrugged his shoulders -- he had nothing to say about Russia himself.

Is it just a simple matter of friendship? It's a question that plagues Washington's diplomats, making them susceptible to many an unproven conspiracy theory. In one dispatch, Ambassador Spogli documented such suspicions. Italian politicians as well as foreign diplomats speak of an arrangement between Putin and Berlusconi, he wrote.

"They believe that Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia," Spogli wrote. "The Georgian ambassador in Rome has told us that the Georgian government believes Putin has promised Berlusconi a percentage of profits from any pipelines developed by Gazprom in coordination with ENI."

The key figure in this theory is Valentino Valentini, an Italian parliamentarian who is Berlusconi's most important adviser on Russia. The "somewhat shadowy figure" speaks Russian and travels to Russia several times a month, according to Spogli. He often turns up at Berlusconi's side too. "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," Spogli writes.

'The Product of Fantasy'

The source of these assertions is not clear. Georgia could certainly have an interest in casting Russia in a bad light. When approached by SPIEGEL, the Georgian government denied being in possession of such information and said it was not the source. Berlusconi's office said that the accusations against both Valentini and Berlusconi are "the product of fantasy and without foundation." Putin's office issued a statement to SPIEGEL saying that the accusations are "completely without basis." It is "absurd or malicious to accuse them of having personal interests," the statement read.

But Washington appears interested in at least investigating the rumors. In January, the US State Department asked the US embassies in Rome and Moscow to assemble "any information on the personal relationship" between Putin and Berlusconi as well as information about "personal investments" that could influence their political policies. It was signed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

US President Barack Obama, for his part, took his time in granting the Italian leader an audience in Washington. During his European trip in early 2009, he ignored him.

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