Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 29

Yesterday, following several days of talks in Moscow devoted to international and economic issues, Russia and Italy declared themselves satisfied with the state of their bilateral relations. The Italian delegation–reportedly a large one–was headed by Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema and included Foreign Trade Minister Piero Fassino and some forty heads of major Italian companies. D’Alema, who held talks on February 9 with Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, afterwards described the visit as proof of Rome’s continued support for Russia’s efforts to overcome its current economic crisis. Primakov, in turn, described Italy as one of Russia’s “closest partners in Europe,” and said that Rome intended to work on Russia’s behalf in strengthening ties between Moscow and the European Union (EU). Primakov also said that Moscow and Rome saw eye to eye on a number of international issues. He did not elaborate. The talks between the two prime ministers were closed to the press.

In his own remarks to reporters yesterday, Italian Foreign Trade Minister Fassino said that Rome had promised to support Russia in its negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Pointing to the large business contingent included in the Italian delegation, Fassino also said that the two sides had discussed a number of economic and business issues in great detail. The Italian delegation, he said, left Moscow with a large number of “contracts, orders, agreements and understandings.” Like D’Alema, he provided few details. There were reports, however, that Italian automaker Fiat had reached agreement on a joint project with the Russian car manufacturer GAZ. The two sides also reportedly discussed a joint pipeline project involving Italy’s ENI and Russian gas giant Gazprom. Russian sources said that Italy is currently Russia’s sixth largest trading partner (Russian agencies, February 8-10).

Moscow suffered some embarrassment on February 8 when the Il-96 presidential plane which carried President Boris Yeltsin back from Jordan collided with D’Alema’s DC-9 while taxiing at the Vnukovo-2 airport. Yeltsin and his entourage, which included Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and a host of administration officials, were apparently unaware that the incident had occurred. The Italian aircraft, however, suffered enough damage that another plane had to be sent from Italy for D’Alema’s return the next day. Russian authorities are reportedly launching an investigation into the accident (AP, Itar-Tass, Moskovsky komsomolets, February 10).

Russian and Italian officials have suggested that relations between the two countries have been on the upswing since Yeltsin traveled to Rome last February. During that visit Yeltsin and then Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi signed a wide-ranging “action plan” aimed at boosting bilateral trade and more generally shaping Italian-Russian relations over the next several decades. It was the first agreement of its kind that Russia had signed with a European state. Despite the apparent success of the visit, Italian observers were said to have been left befuddled by Yeltsin’s sometimes erratic behavior during his stay (see the Monitor, February 11, 1998).

More recently, Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini held two days of talks with Russian leaders in Moscow in early December. Although bilateral relations were on the agenda during Dini’s visit, the two sides reportedly spent a great deal of their time discussing the arrival of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in the Italian capital. The head of the Kurdish Workers Party, whose extradition Turkey had demanded, had arrived in Italy a month earlier–by some accounts on a plane from Moscow (see the Monitor, December 1).