Living in interesting times is not too bad if you have a responsible leader in charge of your country. Consider the case of Italy. It now faces a major diplomatic crisis concerning the chaos in Libya. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the 74-year-old billionaire and media tycoon, has in the past taken great pains to maintain a close friendship with paranoid tyrant Muammar Qadhafi, ruler of Libya since a 1969 coup. Italy’s ENI, an oil and gas giant based in Rome, has helped, along with others such as Total (France) and Repsol (Spain), in the development of Libya’s vast energy resources. Recently, Qadhafi appealed to ENI to help douse an out-of-control fire at an oil facility, a disaster likely caused during conflicts with rebels, fighters emboldened by ongoing unrest and even regime change in other North African countries. Should Berlusconi, despite backing the suspension of a favorable bilateral treaty, allow ENI experts to help out on humanitarian grounds or leave Qadhafi to reap a whirlwind of his own making?
Some see Qadhafi as having Berlusconi over the proverbial barrel, given the profitable trade relationships between the two countries separated by the not-so-very-wide Mediterranean Sea. Libya, among other investments, has stakes in Unicredit, the Milan-based financial services concern, and even in the Turin-based soccer team Juventus. ENI has managed oil and gas operations in Libya for five decades.
Berlusconi, a self-made mogul who has been a major force in Italian politics for the last 15 years, has navigated tricky situations before and may yet come up with a viable solution, keeping good ties with Libya and reasonably good ones with the European Union and the U.S. Yet, some of his recent exploits and maneuvers have not been reassuring, to say the least. For example, take the trash problem in Naples. Berlusconi campaigned in 2008 on settling the crisis, garbage piled up on city streets, by establishing more dumps and building a new collection plant. One dump, established near the Vesuvius volcano, apparently reeks, upsetting locals who also claim hazardous waste is being disposed of there. The collection facility is not popular either as it refuses to handle unseparated trash. Garbage burning in the streets is still going on in this coastal city famous as the originator of pizza.
On another front, Pompeii, a UNESCO cultural site of global significance, is crumbling, largely due to poor management and unresolved maintenance issues. Millions of tourists visit the site annually. Berlusconi says the issue will be handled, but there is little evidence that any salvaging actions are likely to be taken in the near term. Additionally, collapses in Rome, including Nero’s villa near the Colosseum, last spring may also be due to incompetence and inattention.
Berlusconi’s personal life also appears to be a disaster, at least a public relations nightmare if not a private one. Rumors of wild parties and sex games with under-age girls are given support by comments from the Prime Minister’s wife, currently in divorce proceedings, and by officials of the Catholic Church. This head of state is also said to have fallen asleep, supposedly exhausted by dalliances available to the fabulously wealthy, while meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State. So, not so inspiring a figure to be leading a country!
Yet, maybe the guy is a statesman-in-waiting after all. What he does about or goes about influencing the situation in Libya could have a big impact on all of us, not just on the Italians.
“Berlusconi condemns “unacceptable” violence in Libya”, Reuters
“Italy seeks balance for Pompeii site”, UPI
Tobias Jones, “How can Silvio Berlusconi still be in power?”, The Guardian
Rachel Donadio, “Turmoil in Libya Poses Threat to Italy’s Economy”, New York Times