|Berlusconi Denies Profiting From Energy Deals|
|December 03, 2010|
By STACY MEICHTRY
ROME—Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday denied allegations, contained in U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, that he personally reaped profits from energy deals between Italy and Russia.
The allegations are documented in a January 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Rome that offers a sweeping overview of Mr. Berlusconi's overtures to Russia. At one point, the cable expresses concern that Mr. Berlusconi has formed a "nefarious connection" with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, stemming from their joint efforts to foster ties between Russian gas monopoly OAO Gazprom and Eni SpA, the Italian oil-and-gas company.
The cable cites "contacts" within Mr. Berlusconi's political party who "believe that Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia."
The cable then asserts that Georgia's ambassador in Rome told U.S. diplomats that the Georgian government "believes Putin has promised Berlusconi a percentage of profits from any pipelines developed by Gazprom in coordination with Eni."
Mr. Berlusconi, who was traveling to the Black Sea resort of Sochion Thursday for a summit with Mr. Putin and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, denied profiting from Italy's energy deals with Russia.
The U.S. "is quite clear that I have absolutely no interest in any other country; that there are absolutely no personal interests, and that I only look after the interests of the Italians and my country," Mr. Berlusconi was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency ANSA. A spokesman traveling with Mr. Berlusconi confirmed the comments.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. ambassador in Rome, David Thorne, declined to comment on the matter and pointed to an editorial the ambassador published Thursday in Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest daily.
"It is important to emphasize that diplomats' internal reports do not represent a government's official foreign policy," Mr. Thorne wrote. "By releasing stolen confidential information WikiLeaks puts at risk not only important government-to-government relationships but also the lives and work of many people."
A spokesman for the Kremlin dismissed the reports as "groundless." Spokesmen for Gazprom and Eni declined to comment on relations between the two leaders or on the cables.
The embassy of Georgia in Rome didn't respond to phone calls seeking comment on Thursday.
Over the years, Messrs. Berlusconi and Putin have made no secret of their close ties. The two frequently host one another, with Mr. Putin summering at Mr. Berlusconi's palatial villa on the coast of Sardinia, and Mr. Berlusconi making trips to Mr. Putin's dacha in Sochi.
For decades, successive Italian governments have pushed to secure long-term access to Russia's vast energy supplies.
Italy—which lacks significant energy reserves and doesn't generate nuclear power—relies on Russia for more than a quarter of its natural-gas imports. Russia, in turn, has looked to Italy to gain a foothold in Western Europe's retail market for natural gas.
More recently, Italian companies ranging from luxury goods makers to defense contractorFinmeccanica SpA have made deep inroads into the Russian market.
The leaked cable sheds light on how closely the Russian and Italian economies have become entwined as their leaders have cemented personal ties.
From 1998 to 2007, Italian exports to Russia surged 230% to €9.5 billion ($12.5 billion) from €2.7 billion , the cable says. Italy's business elite, the cable adds, see Mr. Berlusconi as "their patron," doling out access to "a limitless market that could substitute for loss of export revenue from other parts of the world."
Mr. Putin has "devoted much energy to developing Berlusconi's trust" over the years, the cable said.
The cable went on to express concern that Mr. Berlusconi had become the "mouthpiece" of the Russian prime minister, adding that the Italian billionaire "admires Putin's macho, decisive, and authoritarian governing style, which (he) believes matches his own."
Mr. Berlusconi has dismissed descriptions of him contained in the cables as the commentary of "third and fourth-rate officials."
Gazprom is currently working with Eni to build a new pipeline to carry gas under the Black Sea to Central Europe and Italy. The planned pipeline, known as Southstream, is controversial because it would allow Moscow to bypass Ukraine, whose rocky relationship with Moscow has led to cutoffs in the flow of gas to Europe in recent years.
The January 2009 cable observed that falling gas prices risked undercutting support for the project, adding that "contacts" at Eni and the Italian government told U.S. diplomats that Eni was "having trouble getting a firm Russian commitment" to Southstream. An Eni spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
Another cable from the U.S. Embassy in Rome in October 2009 cites concerns about whether Mr. Berlusconi's penchant for late-night parties has taken a toll on his health. The cable describes how Mr. Berlusconi skipped a state visit with King Abdullah of Jordan with the aim of "husbanding his flagging energies for a blowout party at Putin's private dacha." An Italian official told U.S. diplomats that allies "are all worried about his health" and that Mr. Berlusconi's "medical tests have come back…a complete mess," the cable states.
Under Secretary Gianni Letta, Mr. Berlusconi's right-hand man, issued a statement late Thursday saying the premier "was and is in full health."
—Gregory L. White in Moscow contributed to this article.
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