Wednesday, Jul. 08, 2009

Serious Business and a Berlusconi Sideshow

Much has changed — and much has not — since Italy last hosted a G-8 summit. The July 2001 gathering in Genoa, which was the first G-8 meeting for U.S. President George W. Bush and the second for Russian President Vladimir Putin, was marred by massive street protests and a harsh police crackdown that included the shooting death of a 23-year-old Genovese protester and beatings of dozens of nonviolent demonstrators. The security arrangements at that event included surface-to-air missiles to guard against airborne terrorist attacks — but that would come seven weeks later, in New York City, fundamentally altering the global agenda of the leaders that had gathered in Genoa. This year, the host, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is the only veteran of the 2001 G-8 summit, and terrorism has been eclipsed by the global economic meltdown at the top of the agenda.

On the eve of this year's summit in the central city of L'Aquila, several smaller and mostly calmer demonstrations in Rome on Tuesday, July 7, featured minor clashes with police and young people sporting T-shirts in honor of Carlo Giuliani, who was shot in the head in a Genoa piazza by a Carabinieri officer as he prepared to launch a fire extinguisher at a police vehicle. Ten protesters were arrested in Rome, with an additional five young French citizens taken into custody in L'Aquila. Security is high across the country, though both officials and protesters have insisted that they don't expect a repeat of the kind of widespread violence that plagued the Genoa summit.

Still, there are other factors that make the July 8-10 meeting hard to predict. Near the top of the list for both local residents and the arriving world leaders is the risk of the earth literally moving in L'Aquila, which continues to suffer aftershocks following an April 6 earthquake that left 297 dead and some 50,000 homeless. Italy changed the G-8 venue from a scenic location on the island of Sardinia to the largely destroyed midsize medieval city in an attempt to draw attention to efforts to rebuild homes and cultural landmarks.

The controversial decision to bring the summit to L'Aquila, where world leaders will be hosted on the grounds of a military academy, was made by Berlusconi, who is host and elder statesman/party guy of the group. More than ever, the billionaire media mogul will be the focus of an inordinate amount of attention. Over the past two months, the 72-year-old Prime Minister has been forced to fend off scandalous accusations, beginning when his wife publicly announced plans to divorce, claiming that he frequents young women. Since then, he has found himself denying newspaper allegations that he may have had sex with a high-priced prostitute. A senior Italian Catholic official this week denounced "libertine" lifestyles of political leaders as a matter of public interest.

The British papers have been particularly focused on the Italian leader's troubles, including a Sunday Times article that announced that the paper was in a bidding war to publish photographs of Berlusconi watching two women share a passionate kiss, as well as other potentially embarrassing images. Berlusconi, who says any explicit photos could only be the work of Photoshop, has denounced the paper, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Italian satellite network is battling with the Prime Minister's TV networks for audience share.

On Tuesday, the London-based Guardian published a story citing several anonymous European officials who say Italy is unprepared for the summit and risks being booted out of the G-8. In an evening press conference, Berlusconi dismissed the report as "a colossal blunder by a small newspaper."

Apart from his caustic one-liner, the Tuesday press conference was a reminder that there is much real work on the G-8 agenda. Berlusconi said he agrees with President Obama's intention to seek negotiations with Iran's leaders despite their violent crackdown on election protesters. Several European countries, most notably France, have signaled their desire to have the G-8 discuss the possibility of escalating sanctions against Iran. But that doesn't seem to be in accord with U.S. intentions for the gathering.

The summit will largely focus on coordinating efforts to revive the world economy, and the G-8 leaders are expected to renew efforts to combat poverty in Africa and take on climate change. No matter what appears in the final document, many Italians simply hope the L'Aquila G-8 summit won't be as memorable as Genoa's.