As President George W. Bush anxiously awaited the outcome of the Ohio vote count, two of his most prominent fans — Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi — were rooting for him in the Kremlin. Bush’s victory marked a high point of the Italian Prime Minister’s official visit to Moscow during the first days of November, which provided the Russian President an opportunity to return the lavish hospitality that was extended to him in Rome and Sardinia in summer 2003. The two men found so much pleasure in the company of each other that they were more than two hours late for the press conference and cultural awards ceremony (Kommersant, November 4).
Despite their shared demonstrative sympathy, it is difficult to find two more dissimilar characters. Putin is an introverted bureaucrat with an undistinguished career in the special services, while Berlusconi is a flamboyant oligarch who built a vast business empire (Vremya novostei, October 27). One was brought to the summit of power as a handpicked successor to the ailing “Tsar Boris,” the other orchestrated his own meteoric breakthrough to the political arena. Both, however, have performed in the leadership role much better than expected and are now confident in their control over their respective state bureaucracies.
There is hardly any natural chemistry between Putin and Berlusconi; the real foundation for their friendship is probably related to European politics. Both men have high European ambitions — and serious difficulties with EU institutions and bureaucrats. Berlusconi’s troubles with the EU Commission have not ended with the departure of his archrival Romano Prodi. Rather, it was his appointee Rocco Buttiglione who caused a full-blown storm in the European Parliament and had to be replaced with Franco Frattini, whom Berlusconi would have much preferred to keep as foreign minister. Putin’s problems with the EU are far greater and range from trade negotiations to human rights, and from Yukos to Chechnya. His mid-October decision to sign the Kyoto protocol has not softened these contradictions in any noticeable way (Poitcom.ru, October 26), and now he is preparing for tough discussions at the EU-Russia summit on November 11 (Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 20).
Putin hopes to find support and understanding from French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, but he is aware that they are under serious pressure from public opinion and their own political opposition. They might, therefore, follow Tony Blair, who was the first European leader to offer Putin a hand of friendship, but since then has demonstratively distanced himself from the Russian leader. Berlusconi, to the contrary, is a real friend in need, and he has proven it again by declaring that Putin’s new initiatives in expanding the “executive vertical” are perfectly normal and represent no departure from democratic practices (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 21).
What is more, the Italian Prime Minister remains the only politician in Europe who continues to argue that EU expansion should not be limited to present-day candidates and at the next stage has to include Russia. This gives him not only a chance to portray himself as a visionary but also the possibility to secure tangible preferences for Italian companies, for instance, in the forthcoming privatization of Vneshtorgbank or in the expected sell-off of juicy bits of Yukos (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 4).
While Putin and Berlusconi would hardly find much common ground discussing their hobbies, they can engage in sharing their hopes and expectations for President Bush’s second term. Certainly, neither Italy nor Russia could compete with Great Britain in the hierarchy of U.S. allies, but the two leaders could entertain the proposition that Tony Blair could have been perfectly happy with a President John Kerry, while for them George W. Bush is certainly the preferred victor. They do have different views on Iraq, but those do not undermine their fundamental preference for the clarity and perhaps even simplicity of Bush’s world. They know how to exploit the anti-terrorist drive and how to bandwagon behind U.S. unilateralism and how to play the oil game. They may even foresee how difficult it will be for the EU to keep the trans-Atlantic partnership on track in the next four years (Polit.ru, November 4).
The two men, therefore, make a perfect political fit. Berlusconi needs Putin as proof that Italy has earned its G8 membership and can have a foreign policy of its own making. Putin finds in Berlusconi firm evidence that Russia could be simultaneously a member of two select clubs: the post-Soviet one, populated by characters like Lukashenka and Yanukovych, not to mention the Central Asian leaders, and the elite Western club, chaired by President Bush. The Russian President is seriously upset with the challenges to this unique position coming from both the EU and the new generation of leaders in the neighborhood, like Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Ukrainian presidential contender Viktor Yushchenko (Gazeta.ru, November 2). Congratulating President Bush, Putin has to convince him that these challengers are not worthy of his support, and Berlusconi’s embrace might add credibility to this argument.