Berlusconi, a planetary man of politics, visits Belarus

It passed largely unnoticed by the outside world, but perhaps the most intriguing event in European foreign policy last week was a visit paid to Belarus by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. The European Union has kept Belarus at arm's length for years because of the repressive domestic policies of President Alexander Lukashenko. Berlusconi was the first western head of government to go to Minsk for well over a decade.

There was something surreal about the visit. Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe's last dictator, praised Berlusconi as "a global, planetary man of politics, our friend". Berlusconi responded: "Thank you, and thanks to your people who, I know, love you, as is demonstrated by the election results which everyone can see." One can only assume this was an example of Berlusconi's famous sense of humour.

So what was the prime minister's purpose in supping with the devil? On a generous interpretation, one could say that the EU has been quietly working for the past year or two to improve relations with Belarus, suspending travel sanctions on Lukashenko and various high-level officials in return for modest progress on the human rights front. Berlusconi's trip served as a signal that the EU is interested in maintaining this effort.

More to the point, Berlusconi enjoys making foreign policy initiatives that are a little out of the ordinary. He prides himself on having warm relations with Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and with Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi. He hosted Lukashenko in Rome last April. His foreign minister, Franco Frattini, tried to visit Iran in May, though the trip was cancelled at the last minute. All these are ways of making Italy appear distinctive on the international stage.

The final reason for Berlusconi's trip concerns Italian business. Finmeccanica, Italy's leading defence company, is probing opportunities to develop communications and transport projects in Belarus. In September Pier Francesco Guarguaglini, Finmeccanica's chief executive, met Lukashenko in Minsk.

Berlusconi's visit to Belarus doesn't wreck the concept of a common EU foreign policy. But it will be interesting to see where he pops up next.


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