Berlusconi in fresh row over Putin ties following leaked audio

Italian ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi was under fresh scrutiny on Wednesday over his friendship with Vladimir Putin after being recorded describing a birthday present of vodka from the Russian leader and expressing concerns about arming Ukraine.

Silvio Berlusconi was recorded describing how he had rekindled ties with Putin.
Silvio Berlusconi was recorded describing how he had rekindled ties with Putin. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Aides insisted he had been misrepresented but the row risks embarrassing Berlusconi’s coalition allies, led by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, as they prepare to form a new government following last month’s elections.

Meloni strongly supports Ukraine and EU sanctions on Russia, but both Berlusconi and her other coalition ally, League leader Matteo Salvini, have both long had warm ties with Moscow.

“Meloni hostage of pro-Russians,” headlined Wednesday’s La Repubblica newspaper, while other reports described her private outrage at what is only the latest gaffe from the billionaire media mogul.

A recording emerged late Tuesday of Berlusconi recounting how he had rekindled ties with President Putin, an old friend.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Italian online news agency LaPresse said the comments came during a meeting of his Forza Italia party lawmakers this week.

“I reconnected a little bit with President Putin… for my birthday he sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a very kind letter,” he said, according to the tape published by LaPresse.

“I responded with bottles of Lambrusco (red wine) and an equally sweet letter.”

A spokesman for Berlusconi, who turned 86 last month, denied he had rekindled relations with Putin, saying Berlusconi had been telling parliamentarians an “old story relating to an episode dating back many years.”

Putin ‘person of peace’

Immediately preceding the anecdote, Berlusconi can be heard describing his concerns about sending weapons and cash to support Ukraine.

According to LaPresse, Berlusconi also described Putin as a “person of peace”, although this was not included in the audio published.

READ ALSO: Russian embassy highlights Italian political ties ahead of vote

A senior Forza Italia lawmaker, Alessandro Cattaneo, said Wednesday that Berlusconi’s comments had been taken out of context, adding: “Soundbites can be copied and pasted.”

Forza Italia also emphasised its support for the EU-US policy on Ukraine.

Berlusconi said in April he was “deeply disappointed” by Putin’s behaviour in Ukraine.

But in September, he was forced to clarify remarks suggesting the president was “pushed” into the invasion by his entourage.

A close aide to Meloni, senior Brothers of Italy lawmaker Francesco Lollobrigida, told reporters Wednesday: “We remain with the Ukrainian people and in defence of democracy in that country, but also fiercely in the Western
axis… Regarding the comments of others, you must ask others.”

READ ALSO: What role will Berlusconi play in Italy’s new government?

Talks are still ongoing on the formation of a new government, with Meloni expected to be confirmed as prime minister by the end of next week.

But the process has been rocky.

Berlusconi lost his temper in the Senate last week, later admitting “deep annoyance” in his party over coalition discussions on how to share out ministerial posts.

But he and Meloni had a meeting on Monday to clear the air, afterwards issuing a photo of the pair smiling.

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Analysis: Could Bolsonaro get Italian citizenship to avoid extradition?

Brazil’s former president may soon face legal charges after last week’s attempted coup. Here’s why he’s considering becoming an Italian citizen to escape extradition from the US.

Analysis: Could Bolsonaro get Italian citizenship to avoid extradition?

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has figured heavily in international news lately after hundreds of his supporters stormed government buildings in the capital Brasilia on Sunday, January 8th, in what has now been widely recognised as a failed coup. 

And though there is currently no evidence that Bolsonaro directly ordered Sunday’s insurrection, Brazilian media reports suggest the former president may, in the words of Brazilian Senator Renan Calheiros, have to “answer for his crimes and be interrogated on the terrorist acts he always incited”.

It is precisely the prospect of legal prosecution that, in a turn of events very few would have been able to anticipate, might tie Bolsonaro’s fate to Italy.

Brazilian news media Istoè and O globo both recently reported that Bolsonaro, who has Italian origins, is currently planning on formally requesting Italian citizenship – a process which two of his five sons, Flavio and Eduardo, started back in 2020.

But why would becoming an Italian citizen allow Bolsonaro to evade prosecution in Brazil?

Bolsonaro is currently in Florida, USA, which he entered on December 30th, two days before his successor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was sworn in as the new Brazilian head of state. 

Aftermath of failed coup in Brasilia, Brazil

Hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters stormed Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, on Sunday, January 8th. Photo by Carl DE SOUZA / AFP

But his position in the US is shaky, to say the least. A single criminal charge – Bolsonaro is already under investigation in at least four pre-coup criminal probes – and sufficient evidence to show probable cause would be enough for the States to accept Brazil’s extradition request. 

Conversely, as an Italian citizen residing in Italy, Bolsonaro would be most likely shielded from extradition as the current agreements between Rome and Brasilia exclude extradition for crimes of political nature and the Italian Constitution (article 26) bans the “extradition of [an Italian] citizen unless international conventions command so”.

So, it seems Bolsonaro would effectively be able to evade prosecution by acquiring Italian citizenship. But should he ultimately choose to request citizenship, how likely is it that he would be successful?

While there’s no way to predict what the final outcome would be, he’d have good chances, at least in theory.

Italy is far more lenient than other countries when it comes to allowing people to claim citizenship via ancestry (also known as ‘right of blood’ or jure sanguinis).

In fact, there are no limits on how far back up the line of descent the applicant’s Italian ancestor is located as long as the Italian national in question was alive on or after March 17th 1861, when the Kingdom of Italy was officially born. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Italian passport if born in Italy?

Bolsonaro’s paternal great-grandfather, Vittorio Bolzonaro, moved to Brazil from Anguillara Veneta, Veneto in the late 1880s or early 1890s at the very latest.

Other than that, the issue of Italian citizenship is dependent on one remaining condition, namely that no Italian national along the line of descent formally renounced their Italian citizenship prior to the birth of their descendant. 

Italy's foreign minister Antonio Tajani

Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani has recently confirmed that no request for Italian citizenship has been made yet by Bolsonaro. Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP

There’s no way to know whether this requirement is actually met in Bolsonaro’s case, though, if it were, his path to acquiring Italian citizenship would be pretty clear. 

As with all things Italian, the process of getting an Italian citizenship application approved is usually very lengthy (taking over three years in most cases). However, there is a ‘fast-track’ option which, while requiring the applicant to relocate to Italy and become a legal resident, cuts overall processing times to around one year. 

So, should Bolsonaro ultimately go for the fast-track route – and provided that he applied immediately and all his documents (including birth, death and marriage certificates of all his relevant ancestors) were in order – the earliest he could become an Italian citizen would be at some point in 2024. 

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?

This is of course all purely hypothetical at present, especially as Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani confirmed on Wednesday that Bolsonaro hasn’t (yet) submitted a request for Italian citizenship. 

But the mere prospect of Brazil’s former president applying for citizenship has caused a stir within the Italian political landscape – several left-wing forces have already asked that the request be immediately rejected should it ever come through.

Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro in Italy

Bolsonaro already has honorary Italian citizenship, which was granted by the small town of Anguillara Veneta in 2021. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Some Italian social media users also highlighted the fact that it’s relatively difficult for children born in Italy to foreign parents to obtain Italian citizenship.

“Before (possibly) giving Italian citizenship to the Bolsonaro family you must give it to all children born and living in Italy who wish to be Italian citizens,” said one.

The former president already has honorary Italian citizenship, granted by Anguillara Veneta, the small town Bolsonaro’s great-grandfather originally emigrated from. However, the town’s mayor is now under increasing pressure to revoke it.

Making Bolsonaro an honorary citizen was a “grave error then” but failing to revoke the award after Sunday’s events would be nothing short of “incomprehensible”, stated Veneto regional councillors Vanessa Camani and Andrea Zanoni, both with the Democratic Party.

As for the Italian government, PM Giorgia Meloni took to Twitter on Sunday to condemn the insurrection in Brasilia. However, neither she nor any other member of her cabinet have so far taken a stance on Bolsonaro’s contentious citizenship issue.

Also, at the time of writing, no member of the League, which largely supported Bolsonaro during his tenure as president and praised him as the “pride of Veneto” in October 2018, has spoken out on the topic.

Whether it’s just a bad bout of forgetfulness or deliberate reticence, the silence is deafening.