Italy upsets US over Georgia

By Guy Dinmore in Rome
martedì set 9 2008 13:30
Once a favoured ally rewarded for his support of the US invasion of Iraq, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's centre-right prime minister, has evolved into a serious irritant for the Bush administration in handling Russia's invasion of Georgia.

Strains in the transatlantic relationship were on display in Rome on Tuesday as Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, and Mr Berlusconi read out statements.

Mr Cheney strongly condemned Russia's "unilateral efforts to alter by force of arms Georgia's internationally recognised boundaries", and reiterated that Nato had agreed on eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

The US delegation, in Italy for five days, had pushed for clear endorsement from Mr Berlusconi. Instead, he did not utter a word of criticism against Russia. The Italian premier said he had tried to explain to Mr Cheney his personal success in helping to defuse "what happened in Ossetia and then in Georgia". He stressed the importance of sustaining the Nato-Russia council, the joint forum he inaugurated in 2002 with President George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president.

According to European diplomats, Bush administration hawks view with suspicion Mr Berlusconi's close personal ties to the Russian leader and worry about Italy's presidency of the G8 from January. Italy has already made clear it intends to invite Mr Putin to the summit in Sardinia.

An attempt by Italy to call a routine meeting of the Nato-Russia council after the invasion of Georgia was blocked by the US.

Concerns grew in Washington that Italy was undermining unity when Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister, went to Moscow last Thursday - on the same day that Mr Cheney was in Georgia and Ukraine, and ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president leading EU peace efforts and now among Washington's favourites.

US hawks are alarmed by Italy's tight energy relationship with Russia, particularly the "strategic partnership" reached between Moscow's Gazprom and Italy's part state-owned Eni in 2006, and the South Stream pipeline planned to take Russian gas across the Black Sea.

"Italy is Russia's Trojan horse in Europe," said a diplomat from a former Soviet satellite state of the west's reliance on Russian gas. Italian officials deny Mr Berlusconi has turned his back on the Bush administration.

One Italian statement that did win Mr Cheney's approval was Mr Frattini's assertion that Europe needed an energy strategy and should be united when negotiating with Russia, Libya and Algeria.

Privately, Italian officials argue that the US should be the last country to lecture Europe on the dangers of energy dependency, and that Mr Bush and Mr Cheney will soon move on, but Mr Putin and Russia's gas will not.

● Competing pipeline projects that would connect Europe with new sources of gas in the Caucasus and central Asia have provided the Cheney delegation with maps showing a crazy paving of dotted lines.

Umberto Quadrino, chief executive of Edison, Italy's second-largest energy group, is lobbying the Bush administration to put its full weight first behind Edison's ITGI Corridor project and, later, the more ambitious but still somewhat hypothetical Nabucco pipeline. Both would bypass Russia but transit Georgia.

ITGI would take 8bn cubic metres of gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz field in the Caspian all the way to Italy. Azeri gas is already reaching Georgia and Turkey and can be extended to Greece. The only "missing link" is an undersea pipeline across to Italy to be built by Edison and Greece's Depa.

"We are ready to do it," Mr Quadrino told the Financial Times after the Ambrosetti conference in northern Italy where he lobbied the Cheney delegation.