By Mark Lowen
Silvio Berlusconi, who will be part of Italy’s new coalition government, has whipped up a storm of criticism by boasting that he had renewed ties with Vladimir Putin through exchanging “lovely letters” in which the Russian leader had called him “number one among his five best friends”.
The three-time prime minister, whose “bunga bunga” sex parties and closeness to the Kremlin have made him no stranger to controversy, made the remarks to his MPs.
In audio of the meeting obtained by the Italian news agency LaPresse, Mr Berlusconi said Mr Putin had sent him twenty bottles of vodka for his birthday and a “very lovely letter.”
He went on: “I responded with bottles of Lambrusco and an equally sweet note”, adding that he had “re-established relations with President Putin, a little too much.”
“Russian ministers have said on many occasions that we are at war with them because we are providing weapons and funding to Ukraine,” Mr Berlusconi added.
“I can’t personally give my opinion because if it is leaked to the press, it will turn out to be a disaster.”
Forza Italia, Mr Berlusconi’s party, sought to clarify the explosive comments by suggesting that its leader was talking about previous contacts with the Kremlin and insisting that his stand on Russia was “in line with Europe and the United States.”
But the episode is yet another headache for Giorgia Meloni, who is preparing to name her right-wing government, which will include Forza Italia figures.
After winning last month’s election with her hard-right, socially conservative views, Ms Meloni has sought to reassure Italy’s western allies by repeating her stance in favour of Nato and continued weapons supplies to Ukraine.
But she is in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini – both known Putinophiles.
In 2015, Ukraine banned Mr Berlusconi for three years for visiting Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia, with Vladimir Putin.
The veteran Italian politician once gifted the Kremlin leader a duvet cover bearing their faces. During the election campaign, he said Mr Putin had just wanted to replace Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelensky with “decent people.”
Mr Berlusconi’s new comments come after a series of run-ins with Ms Meloni. Amid reports that she was blocking his preference for a minister, he refused to back her choice of speaker for the upper house of parliament.
A photograph emerged of a note he had written calling her “opinionated, overbearing, arrogant and offensive”. She sniped back: “Berlusconi forgot one point: I’m not blackmailable.”
The tension has increased as the veteran politician insisted one of his MPs be named Justice Minister, despite an apparent lack of agreement by Ms Meloni.
“Berlusconi is like a scorpion with a frog: he stings even if he also knows he will die,” she said, according to the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
The powerplay between the two shows Ms Meloni’s outmanoeuvring of the 86-year-old Mr Berlusconi, with her rapid rise occupying the right-wing that he once dominated.
In his government of 2008, he gave her a first big break by appointing her Italy’s youngest ever minister at 31.
After he was forced from office three years later, his power waned amidst his judicial woes. With Ms Meloni now set to become Prime Minister at 45, her generational victory has seemed complete. But the ongoing tension between the two reveals a battle that is not yet over.
Their opponents appear to be relishing it. The centrist politician Carlo Calenda wrote that the only other thing Berlusconi could do to hamper the birth of the government was to bomb the headquarters of Ms Meloni’s party.
But the political drama doesn’t bode well. For the EU, holding its breath over Italy’s first far-right leader since the World War Two, it will deepen fears about the country’s foreign policy direction.
And for exhausted Italians, the near-daily reports of bust-ups at the top are far from the stability they crave.