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Italian Prime Minister Dogged by Allegations of Corruption - 2003-06-12

Italian rapper Jovanotti sings about a “Fifth World,” one that is more open and honest than the world we inhabit today. Jovanotti’s fans are mostly young people, fed up with corruption found in so many aspects of Italian social and political life.

“So people bribe a doorman to get to see a functionary. They bribe the functionary to get a driver’s license -- maybe faster or the one they don’t deserve,” says Emilio Viano, professor of Justice, Law and Society at American University in Washington. He is currently on a lecture tour in Europe.

“Organized crime is so pervasive in the life of the nation,” he says, “particularly in the politics and controls so many facets of Italian life that it is very, very hard to be in public life and probably to be in business in any significant sense without having - wittingly or unwittingly some contacts with organized crime.”

In 2001, for the second time since 1994, a conservative government led by the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi has come to power in Rome. He was forced to resign shortly after he was first elected in 1994 amid allegations of bribery and connections to the mob.

Ironically, it was a movement against corruption in the Italian government that brought Italy’s wealthiest businessman to power. In 1992, a group of state attorneys started an aggressive campaign of anti-corruption investigations and prosecutions known as Mani Pulite or Clean Hands. Many top party leaders and government officials ended up in jail. The ensuing political earthquake destroyed traditional parties, such as the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. Out of the rubble emerged Silvio Berlusconi as a potentially strong, charismatic leader. His relatively small party Forza Italia formed a coalition with neo-fascists and another radical party to win the 1994 elections. He used his privately owned media as a powerful tool promoting his image of a self-made man, which appealed to Italian voters. Antonio Guizzetti, an Italian businessman in Washington, says Mr. Berlusconi had the right message at the right time.

“Berlusconi is not a traditional politician giving an ideological message, or making reference to an ideological system,” he says. “Berlusconi has been able to transfer his model of successful businessman into politics.”

In business since the age of 25, Silvio Berlusconi made his first fortune as a building contractor. During the 1970’s, he created the world’s twelfth-largest media company with television stations offering a variety of lowbrow entertainment. By the time he entered politics, he had become the wealthiest man in Italy and one of the 20 wealthiest in the world. Professor Viano says he has used money and power to shape laws to favor his enterprises and also to avoid the charges accumulating against him.

“Basically, what he is accused of is connections with organized crime on many facets,” he says, “particularly on his own communication empire, which is something that has dogged him during his entire political life. Accusations against him include conflict of interest, domination of the airwaves, i.e. opinion-forming capability through the mass media and manipulation of the news. He is accused of his own and governmental actions and then obviously, also of connection with organized crime for the extension of his media and other empires.”

In 1991, Mr. Berlusconi legalized his media monopoly with the help of his friend former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, who sponsored a law to re-organize television broadcasting. It reserved 25% of available frequencies for private stations that transmitted a nation-wide program. Since there were no other private stations transmitting such a program, it was clear the law applied only to Mr. Berlusconi’s media.

When Mr. Berlusconi became head of government, he also assumed control of the state-run television RAI with its three channels, and he bought several major newspapers. Recently, he has been accused of engineering the resignation of the editor of Corriere della Sera, Italy’s biggest and most independent daily. The Italian Prime Minister has thus achieved an all-inclusive media control. Some observers note Eastern European countries with similar arrangements would be automatically excluded from entry into the European Union. Yet next month Italy headed by Mr. Berlusconi will assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, notes Stephan Richter, German-born editor-in-chief of the international on-line magazine The Globalist.

“That is really the tragedy,” he says, “not just of Italy but the tragedy of all of Europe, because we are now going to have an Italian president of the European Union for the next six months that - if we were all truthful - would probably be held back at borders because there are various legal proceedings going on against him. And that is not the image that Europe wants to thrust upon the world. It makes us look like a mixture between Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Angola. It’s a little too globally tainted.”

Some observers note that other European politicians have been accused of unethical practices, including former Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and French president Jacques Chirac. Professor Emilio Viano adds Jean Tiberi, mayor of Paris, to the list.

“You can think of Tiberi, another major politician from the south of France,” he says, “that was also connected to organized crime which is very strong in the Riviera, Nice, Marseilles, la Cote d’Azur that part of France. So I don’t mean to say that all of them are connected to organized crime per se, but if you look at the corrupting as an over-arching category, Berlusconi has plenty of company in neighboring countries.”

Stephan Richter, editor of “The Globalist” says every country has its problems in government, but he would not compare French President Chirac to the Italian Prime Minister.

“Chirac is small fry for what he has been taking,” he says. “There are rental issues. There are nepotism issues. There are benefits issues. The French elite - the way they helped themselves in France was to give themselves beautiful apartments for low prices and all sorts of other deals. Some people had supposedly corporate-financed courtesans. All this every country has its all system of vice.”

And every country, it seems, has a different level of tolerance for problematic politicians. Italians in many cities have staged protests against Mr. Berlusconi. But as Mr. Richter says, many consider his moves to be politically savvy, if unethical.

“Because ultimately, I think, the Italian street has a sense that ‘Yes, we like that devil,’ which is why he got elected, not just by the middle class,” he says.

The week of July 11 Silvio Berlusconi was scheduled to appear in a Milan court to answer allegations of bribery. But he did not show up because he began a conveniently timed tour of the Middle East to build, in his words, on Washington’s peace initiatives. In the meantime, his allies in the Italian parliament are rushing through a bill to give legal immunity to top government officials that would keep Mr. Berlusconi safe from prosecution until he leaves office in 2006. In view of this, young Italians dreaming of the “Fifth World” may have to accept the reality of the one they live in, as their parents did before them.