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UKRAINE

‘Deeply disappointed’: Italy’s Berlusconi breaks silence over friend Putin

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday spoke out over the Ukraine invasion, saying he was "deeply disappointed and saddened" by the behaviour of his old friend Russian President Vladimir Putin.

'Deeply disappointed': Italy's Berlusconi breaks silence over friend Putin
Silvio Berlusconi addresses a Forza Italia rally in Rome on March 9, 2022. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

“I cannot and I do not want to hide that I am deeply disappointed by the behaviour of Vladimir Putin,” Berlusconi told a public meeting of his right-wing Forza Italia party in Rome.

READ ALSO: ‘No respect’: Polish mayor confronts Italy’s Salvini over Putin support

“I’ve known him about twenty years and he always seemed to me to be a democrat and a man of peace,” the 85-year-old billionaire said.

Berlusconi, who served as head of the Italian government three times between 1994 and 2011, had previously refrained from publicly criticising Putin.

When he was in power, Berlusconi maintained friendly personal ties with the Russian president, going so far as to invite him on vacation to his luxurious villa in Sardinia.

Italia media said Berlusconi’s words marked “the end of a 20-year friendship”.

Silvio Berlusconi, who was Italy’s prime minister at the time, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin around his Sardinia estate in August 2003. Photo by PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / ITAR-TASS / AFP

“Faced with the horror of the massacres of civilians in Bucha and other places, real war crimes, Russia can not deny its responsibilities,” he said on Saturday.

His party forms part of the broad coalition supporting the government led by Mario Draghi.

Though several of the parties in Draghi’s coalition government have close ties with Russia, from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party to Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), all have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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There was initial concern following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Italy would hold back from enforcing tough sanctions on Moscow due to longstanding relationships between Italian political powers and the Kremlin.

The two countries’ ties date back to the Cold War. But things changed in 2021, when Prime Minister Mario Draghi took office with a strongly pro-European, pro-NATO stance.

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ITALIAN POLITICS

Will Italy’s Five Star Movement split throw the government into crisis?

After the largest party in Italy's coalition government imploded over the country's response to the Ukraine war, Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Wednesday called for unity. Is another political crisis on the horizon?

Will Italy's Five Star Movement split throw the government into crisis?

Draghi has taken a firm, pro-EU line on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: sending weapons to Kyiv, backing sanctions on Moscow despite Italy’s heavy reliance on Russian gas, and supporting Ukraine’s hopes of joining the European Union.

But there have been rumblings of unease within his coalition government, which burst into the open on Tuesday with a split in parliament’s biggest party, the Five Star Movement.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving the party amid disagreements over how Italy should respond to the Ukraine war.

An estimated 60 lawmakers are following him into his breakaway group, named “Together for the Future” – just over a quarter of Five Star’s MPs.

READ ALSO: Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

The move risks upsetting the fragile balance of power in Draghi’s coalition government, a year before general elections are due and at a difficult time for Italians battling skyrocketing inflation.

A vote on Wednesday suggested parliament still overwhelmingly backs the premier, with the lower Chamber of Deputies approving by 410 to 29 a resolution supporting the Ukraine policy.

The Senate similarly approved it on Tuesday.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“Unity is essential in these moments because the decisions that must be taken are very difficult,” Draghi said before Wednesday’s result, which came one day before an EU summit in Brussels begins.

In an uncharacteristically combative address to deputies, Draghi accused those who disagreed with his policy of effectively calling on Kyiv to surrender.

“There is a fundamental difference between two points of view. One is mine – Ukraine must defend itself, and sanctions and the sending of weapons serve this goal,” Draghi said to applause.

“The other point of view is different. Ukraine must not defend itself, we shouldn’t do sanctions, we shouldn’t send armaments, Russia is too strong, why should we take her on, let Ukraine submit.”

Di Maio had made a similar attack on members of his own party at the weekend, paving the way for Tuesday’s defection.

Five Star leader Giuseppe Conte, the country’s former premier, has argued that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution, warning against getting involved in an escalating arms race.

Conte and Di Maio have been at odds since long before the war, however.

Five Star leader Giuseppe Conte stressed that his party still backed the coalition, saying: “Support for Draghi is not up for discussion.”

Nevertheless, some commentators believe Draghi’s coalition government – involving all main political parties except the far-right Brothers of Italy – will start to splinter ahead of 2023 elections.

The Five Star split is likely to weigh on “the entire political system, starting with Draghi, who is now more shaky than before,” wrote La Stampa columnist Marcello Sorgi.

The defections in Five Star leave the anti-immigration League of Matteo Salvini as the biggest party in parliament, but it too is struggling with waning public support.

Media reports this week suggest this could work in Giorgia Meloni’s favour in the next election – the far-right Brothers of Italy leader is now being touted as potentially becoming the country’s first female prime minister, as her party remains the only one in opposition to Draghi’s coalition.

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