Vital role in Georgia crisis for…Italy?
Did Italy unwittingly trigger the crisis in South Ossetia and then play a central role in stopping it? It may not be the view in most of the world but you could come to that conclusion from reading some Italian papers.
First, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was quoted in a report by French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy on Wednesday, which was reproduced in full on the front page and pages 2 and 3 of Corriere della Sera, as saying that he was first alerted to the situation in South Ossetia by reports in the Italian press that he saw while on a dieting holiday in Italy.
“I am in Italy, for a slimming cure, and I am about to leave for Beijing. Then, in the Italian papers, I read: ‘Preparations for war in Georgia.’ You understand? There I am, relaxing, in Italy, and I read that my country is preparing for war! Realising something is wrong, I quickly return to Tbilisi,” Saakashvili told his French interviewer.
Besides the intriguing idea of anyone trying to lose weight in Italy, the piece suggests the Italian press had a central role in the Georgian president’s decision to try to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
According to another Italian media outlook, the weekly magazine Tempi (on their website only, since the print version has been suspended for summer holidays), Italy also played a central role in stopping the five-day conflict that it may have contributed to starting.
Tempi quoted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as saying that it was he who persuaded Vladimir Putin not to let his tanks go all the way to Tbilisi, thus avoiding what Berlusconi said would have been a “useless bloodbath”.
When Reuters took the precaution of checking the quotes with Berlusconi’s press office, we were first told: “If that’s what they write, go ahead and pick it up.” We also passed on the quotes to Moscow to get a response from Putin’s office, to clarify whether Berlusconi really has such influence on the Russian premier and former president.
Very soon, Berlusconi’s office told us it was putting out a statement to deny the juiciest quotes in the Tempi interview, where Berlusconi was quoted as saying: “Thank God my friend Putin listened to me. Otherwise there is no bloody way the Russian tanks would have stopped 15 km from Tbilisi. We have avoided a useless bloodbath.”
The quote seemed to echo Berlusconi’s election jingle “Meno male che Silvio c’e” (“thank goodness for Silvio”). But it was too good to be true, according to his press office at Palazzo Chigi. They said these quotes were not legitimate, were not the kind of language Berlusconi would have used anyway, and were the fruit of a misunderstanding at best, at worst pure invention.
The Italian prime minister, now in his third term in power, does have the ear of the Russian leader, who was the first foreign leader to visit him after the Italian conservative leader’s election victory in April, at his villa in Sardinia (see picture). The newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, Il Giornale, reported on Aug. 12 — the day Russia ordered a halt to the fighting — that the Italian leader was mediating and “exercising moral-suasion” on Putin. The same paper later quoted Berlusconi as saying: “Putin told me ‘Talk to Bush’. And Bush told me ‘Talk to Putin’. In the end we achieved a major result.”