Analysis-Method or madness? Berlusconi’s Russia stance hurts Meloni and Italy

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s pro-Russian comments are likely to complicate Giorgia Meloni’s efforts to bring international credibility to the government she is set to lead, analysts say.

Berlusconi is a longtime friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin and this week reiterated his sympathy for him by accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of instigating the war.

Berlusconi’s views on the war and his affection for Putin are particularly sensitive given that a senior member of his Forza Italia party, Antonio Tajani, is widely expected to become foreign minister in a government led by Giorgia Meloni.

Nathalie Tocci, head of Italy’s Institute for International Affairs (IAI), said Berlusconi’s comments on Putin came as a blow to Meloni, who is already facing international skepticism as she prepares to form Italy’s most right-wing government since World War II .

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“The government starts with an uphill road and this problem has made the climb a bit steeper. But that doesn’t mean the mountain can’t be climbed,” Tocci told Reuters.

Berlusconi’s leaked comments were made this week at a meeting with lawmakers from Forza Italia, part of the conservative coalition that will form the next government after winning September 25 general elections.

Meloni, leader of the nationalist Brothers of Italy party, has staunchly defended Ukraine and backed Western sanctions against Moscow since the Russian invasion began in February.

Brothers of Italy dates back to the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) and has historically expressed Eurosceptic views. Meloni gradually adopted a pro-European approach and pledged full support to NATO during its campaign to build trust between international partners.

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Berlusconi is currently negotiating key government posts with Meloni and the right-wing Lega party, whose leader Matteo Salvini has also expressed his admiration for Putin in the past.

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Disputes over cabinet posts have sparked tensions between the 86-year-old Berlusconi and Meloni, and some politicians believe he wants to hobble the incoming government, which is expected to be installed next week, because Forza Italia is the junior partner.

“For Berlusconi, the fact that he is not able to call the shots is a personal outrage,” Osvaldo Napoli, a longtime Forza Italia lawmaker who left the party last year, told Reuters.

Berlusconi’s pro-Putin remarks came before dozens of lawmakers from Forza Italia, and Napoli believed the risk of information leaking to the press was obviously high.

On Wednesday, after a second audio file containing Berlusconi’s comments was leaked, Meloni issued a statement saying that any party that disagreed with her line that Italy was part of Europe and sided with NATO , should not join the government.

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Some analysts believe that there is no clear strategy behind Berlusconi’s comments and that they could backfire and even jeopardize Tajani’s chances of becoming foreign minister.

Giovanni Orsina, a professor of politics at Luiss University in Rome, said Berlusconi had refuted his own argument that Forza Italia could have a moderating influence on the government.

“It’s hard to imagine that this is rational because Berlusconi and his party are the first to suffer damage… I wonder if burning your house to burn neighboring houses can be considered a rational method,” he said he Reuters.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Keith Weir and William Maclean)

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